How to Support Grieving Children

Death of a spouse is like losing a part of yourself. For children, it’s losing the foundation of all that they know. They don’t have the vocabulary, emotional maturity, support or community to educate them about what’s going on inside of them. They have their family, teachers and friends and maybe a counselor. I realized, as the parent of children who lost a parent, it was up to me to support and educate them about grief and life after their loss. I dove into my grief head first, learning everything I could about it. I joined an online grief-group and had the support of a community of grievers. I took a four-month grief educator course to try to understand how to best support my kids who were 4, 11 and 14. Just like on an airplane, in grief, you have to put the oxygen mask on yourself first. So if you are just doing what you can to make it moment by moment, bookmark this page. Then set an alert in your calendar to come back to it in six months. You must put the oxygen mask on yourself first. 

Use clear, concise language when talking about their parent’s death.

I remember taking my son to our family dentist a few months after his dad died. They asked if there were any changes since they’d seen him last. I said something about “Keanu lost his dad.” As soon as I said the words, I realized my mistake. Keanu had lost a stuffed animal he called “zebra kitty” and he’d been really bummed that I wouldn’t get him another one. Just by the structure of the sentence, it made Keanu responsible. The truth is, his dad died and he did nothing wrong. “Oh my gosh, that’s not right.” I said quickly. “Keanu didn’t lose his dad. His dad died.” I’m not sure why I felt the need to say anything to the dentist, except that I wanted them to know that we were grieving, we were missing one of our own and I wanted to wear that badge with honor, like a war veteran. 

Teach the word “grief”

Give the feeling a name. Teach your child the word “grief.” It feels like a broken heart. Let them know this is natural and normal, and it won’t hurt like this forever. I didn’t do this at first. It didn’t occur to me. Brain function shuts down and grief brain has a narrow lens. Keanu started drawing broken hearts. One night, as I watched him draw a portrait of himself with a broken heart. “You know, there’s a word that is the feeling of a broken heart. It’s called grief.” “Grief?” he repeated. “Yup, that’s the feeling of a broken heart.” He liked having a word for it. “How do you spell it?” he asked. G-R-I-E-F I told him. He wrote it next to his picture. He turned the page and drew another picture, Keanu with a whole heart. 

It’s not your fault

I took it for granted that my kids would know that they did not cause their parent to die. But the more likely scenerio is that kids will think they did something to make it happen, or that they could have done something to stop it from happening, the same way adults do. Tell them that it is not their fault. Not in any way, shape or form. 

Keanu loved Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat. His dad read it to him every night the spring before he died.  In the book, The Cat is quite a rascal. He makes a big mess and doesn’t follow directions. Keanu thought he was so funny! Keanu, is extra sensory, and was also into everything and made big messes everywhere he went. So, Keanu related to the Cat. His dad bought him a stuffed animal of ”The Cat in the Hat” a few months before he died. After his dad died, Keanu didn’t want The Cat in the Hat anymore. He threw it on the floor, “I don’t like him anymore. I’m going to give him to Good Will,” he said angrily. I didn’t make the connection. I did feel something, but back then, I wasn’t stopping right away to ask questions and get more clarity on what my Spidey sense was trying to tell me. It wasn’t till months later that it hit me – He thinks it’s his fault. I don’t remember what he said that made me know, but I knew. I sat him down and snuggled him. “Daddy dying was not your fault, not in any way, shape or form,” I said. “It’s not your fault.” “Your daddy loves you. He didn’t want to leave you. He’d be here with you if he could be.” I then told him stories about his dad taking him to work and making him cakes for every single holiday! Even Valentine’s Day became “Keanu-Day.” I could feel Keanu’s energy shift. A few weeks later, Keanu pulled out book, “The Cat in the Hat” to read for bedtimes stories. That silly Cat! He said and we laughed. 

Give them ways to express their grief

I scheduled 30-minutes of coloring time at bedtime with my son, before stories. At first, we started drawing in a Peter Rabbit Learn-to-Draw art book. It gave prompts like, here’s Peter Rabbit. Draw in what he’s looking for in the garden. Or, draw what these mice want to eat at their party. Once we finished the book, I got blank sketch pads. It’s been almost two years since his dad died, and he’s drawn nearly every night since. For about a month, he drew broken hearts. He drew pictures of himself sad, happy and angry. He scribbled hard and broke the paper when he was mad. He drew family portraits when he was happy. He drew his dad in yellow, to show that he was dead. The rest of us were in brown or orange. When he had a pre-kindergarten homework assignment to draw a family portrait, he asked me, “How many people are in our family?”  “There are five people in our family,” I said. “Daddy is still a part of our family. You can draw four or five of us. It’s up to you. They are both right.” He drew four of us: himself, me and his sisters.

They are always in your heart

Let them know their parent’s love is still in their heart. I’d read a great book called The Invisible String to my daughters when their dad and I got divorced. The invisible string connects the parent’s heart to the child’s hearts, no matter what and no matter how far apart the parent is from the child. Daddy is always with you. Place your hands on your heart and think of him, feel love in your heart and know that he is sending you love too. 


This is one of the best things I did. Lovebook is an online comic book program that allows you to design your own comic book. It’s beautifully printed in a glossy hardcover. Nate made me one for our anniversary, and it’s one of my most special possessions. I didn’t want Keanu to forget his dad. That’s what motivated me to make the book. But the results went way beyond memories. The book is called, Keanu, You are Amazing!  It starts with Keanu’s as a baby and his dad changing his stinky diapers. Four-year old boys love anything with the word “poop” in it, and Keanu laughs every time we read that page. I wanted Keanu to remember their rituals and the cool things his dad did for him and with him, like, feeding him sardines and grass fed beef for a healthy brain, taking Keanu to work with him at WJZ and how Keanu would look through the video camera during live shots. Nate wanted to travel the world with Keanu. At night, they’d spin the globe and Nate would say, “Where shall we go?” Keanu would stop the globe with his finger and they’d pick a spot to explore. Hawaii, Australia, Thailand. These are the every day moments that make up a person’s life. I’m so grateful to LOVEBOOK for allowing me a way to preserve them for my son. I plan to make books for my daughters, their grandmas and more for Keanu. It takes time, which single parents in grief may not have much of. But if you can have someone help you, it’s worth the effort. What’s really remarkable is how Keanu’s confidence grew by reading the book. “I’m really good at math and science,” he says with a smile. You sure are. He recently asked me update it, because he isn’t into rainbows and unicorns anymore. So, the second edition will be out soon.

Schedule time for your own grief

Schedule time for your grief so it doesn’t crush family time. This is after the initial shock of course. In the beginning, I was walking grief. I could not stop the tears. I couldn’t bear being on the planet without Nate. I clung to my online grief group and joined the four live zooms every week. At night, rather than be immersed in silence, I’d watch replays. But I noticed that Keanu’s mood changed as soon as turned on the computer. He’d act goofy and tried to make me laugh. He needed me to be good. He needed me to be happy, to grieve less and more present with him. I stopped watching the replays while kids were home. 

Give them permission to be happy

Kids might feel guilty for being happy. Their grief is more like a ping pong or tennis. They bounce all over the place, whereas adult grief might be painful for much longer. Let them know that you are grieving and sometimes you’ll be happy and sometimes you’ll be sad or mad, and that you want them to feel happy as much as they can. I tell Keanu that life is supposed to be fun. I didn’t know this when I was a kid. I wasn’t taught this. But now, knowing what I know, life is growth. To be alive means change and expansion. I want my kids growing with love, joy and aliveness. Tell them what you want for them.

What are emotions?

Teach them about emotions. We watched Inside Out over and over for this. Helping my son (and myself) be able to identify different emotions and seeing them as separate from him has been crucial for his growth. We talk about feelings often. We draw them, act them out and read about them. It’s been life-changing for me to go through this with him and is making both of us more emotionally intelligent. 

The afterlife

Depending on what you want to teach them about the afterlife, teach them. Tell them in clear, simple language. We watched the movie “SOUL” to lay the groundwork for it. Nate loved “SOUL” and Keanu loves the character 22. I believe that our bodies are a small part of who we are and that when the body dies, the other 90% of us still exists and that we can communicate with them. I study mediumship and am in a couple of development circles. I meditate and practice daily. This is a little harder for my daughters to get used to, because it’s new. I didn’t have these gifts, or want them, before Nate died. Now, they are an essential part of my spiritual journey and it’s important to me that they know life is much more than the three-dimensional world here on Earth. This is a highly personal area and one that only you will be able to determine what is right for you and your children. 

Don’t assume they know

Remember that they have very little experience in life. Kids don’t know something unless you tell and teach them. I’m realizing this with my teenagers. I assume they know more than what they know. At times, I’ve found myself resentful or frustrated that they don’t know what I know. If you’re going to assume anything, assume they don’t know anything. They don’t know what happens when a person or animal dies. They don’t know what feelings are, their role, or how they affect our lives. They don’t know thoughts affect feelings. They don’t know why they feel good or feel bad. Learning about death at a young age is powerful. How that influences their lives will depend largely on you, the surviving parent. It could be traumatic and damaging, or, could it help them become more kind, compassionate, resilient, helpful, purposeful and to live with joy and meaning. Be intentional in your steering them in the direction of their highest good.

Watch your words

Be mindful of what you say all the time. Several of months after his dad died, Keanu said to me, “I know how Daddy died.” “You do?” I asked, surprised. He had asked me several times how his dad died. Up until that point, I’d told him that I didn’t know the details yet, but I would let him know more when he got older. “He drove off a bridge into the water,” he said matter of factly. I was confused because this was not how his dad died. “Why do you think that?” I asked. “I heard you say it,” he said. Wow. This is a hard lesson. Do not talk about anything related to your loved ones death that you don’t want kids to hear. They hear everything. In the initial shock of it, I may have been talking to someone and said something like, “I would have expected him to drive off a bridge.” I don’t remember saying it, but now I had to make it right. 

Me, “Nope, that’s not how Daddy died. No bridge. No water. No crash. No splash. 

Keanu. “He didn’t drive off a bridge?” 

Me. “No, he did not drive off a bridge.” 

Keanu, “Did he die in the water??” 

Me, “No, he did not die in the water.”

Keanu, “So, how did Daddy die?”
Me, “We aren’t completely sure yet. I’ll tell you more, when you are older, okay? For right now, know that Daddy had a sickness, not like a cold or the flu, like we get sick. He had a disease called mental illness. His brain stopped working the way it’s supposed to.”

I stopped talking about anything to do with the details of Nate’s death when the kids were home. Other people do not notice that kids are always listening either, and may ask questions during inappropriate times. Several times I had to say, “I can’t talk about that right now,” and leave it at that. People don’t know what to say, and often talk out of nervousness. Create and communicate an intention to do what is best for the kids and then maintain those boundaries.

Let them know they are safe. Let them know that you love them. Let them know they will be okay. Let them know they will be taken care of and inform them of any big changes that will affect them, like if they will have to move, or change schools. Give them information that pertains to them. Keep it honest and short, always focus on what is secure and stable in their world.

Special Days

Ask they kids if they’d want to do something on special days, like their parent’s birthday or the anniversary of their death. In early grief, you might just let the day be the day and get through it any way you can. As we reach the two year mark of Nate’s death, I want to create a ritual, a way to celebrate him and honor him for the family. And, I respect that they might not want to do that also. My teenagers grieve differently than my kindergartener, I grieve differently than they do. All of it, is perfectly imperfect.