Helping Your Child Cope With the Death of a Classmate

By Elizabeth Patton

This is an article that I am both honored and saddened to write. As a school counselor I am privileged to enjoy the wonderful blessings of happy, carefree children on a daily basis. The tremendous joy that I feel when entering a classroom of children is hard to describe. The intense delight that children bring us makes the death of a child seem like one of the most tragic parts of our life. There are no words to capture how intensely sad it is when a child dies.

With each new school year, we prepare our children for being flexible and adaptable; making new friends, sharing, following the rules, etc. We don’t expect to need to have a conversation about the death of a classmate. We want to handle it the right way because this is a big moment in our child’s life, but we struggle with the enormity of what it must feel like to lose a child. Our children seem a little sweeter, a little nicer, and we want to hug them a little longer and tighter.

As adults we wonder WHY and might question our faith. We feel the burden of maintaining our emotions, fearful that we might upset the children. Yet, our children’s ability to cope with death is a reflection of our ability to help them understand and manage their emotions in this difficult time. In order to do that, we have to be genuine with our own feelings. Explaining death to a child means that we have to be honest with our kids and encourage their questions. Not having the answers is part of the process and there’s no one right or wrong way to feel. It is perfectly acceptable to be sad and share that you are sad. Sometimes the tears will come out of the blue.

A child may or may not show grief as an adult would.

Most children are aware of death, even if their understanding is limited. As caregivers, we cannot protect children from the pain of loss, but we can help them to feel safe. By allowing and acknowledging a child’s feelings, it is possible to help him or her build coping skills. Sometimes we are too quick to try to cheer up our children because it is hard for us to watch their sadness.

Depending upon the age of the child, his or her ability to understand the finality of death is likely limited. Even after discussing the idea of death, children may ask when they will see their friend/loved one again. It is important to use the correct language and avoid phrases such as “lost”, “went away” or “went to sleep.” When children are young they use language in a concrete manner and might be scared to go to sleep, or worry when someone goes away. Questions might be difficult, but remember that honesty and clarity are invaluable. Simply being available to your child is the most important thing. Over sharing details or specifics of the death might be a signal that you, the caregiver, need another adult to talk with in order to process the situation. Too much information can be scary for a child and difficult for him or her to process.

A child may or may not show grief as an adult would. Sometimes we might see acting out or hyperactivity as a result of a death. Teens might demonstrate annoyance and look for comfort from their peer group. Learning how to deal with grief is like other developmental tasks and is a process.

There is often great comfort in keeping to the regular routine. Though this may feel wrong, it is best to keep things as consistent and predictable as possible. So, while attending dance class or soccer practice at this time might feel unreasonable to an adult, to a child this familiarity can be comforting. Offering a predictable day with the same rules and expectations provides more room for our children to express their grief in a way that makes sense to them.