Supporting Children with Sudden and Traumatic Loss

Same toys from last pictures together with 5 Potato Head toys with different facial expressions standing in a sand tray in front of a dollhouse

Sudden or traumatic loss can be one of the most difficult losses to cope with for many reasons. The way in which someone died may be hard to think of when the death was traumatic. We may feel conflicting feelings of anger, sadness, betrayal, fondness, relief, guilt, and love all at the same time.

If our loved one or someone significant to us died and did not tell us they were ill or did not pursue the help or support they needed, we may feel frustration/anger/resentment towards them. If we had an estranged relationship, we may be sad grieving the loss and at the same time angry that the relationship was not what it could have or should have been.

We may have a hard time connecting with others who may not understand the complicated feelings we are experiencing. We may feel as if we are alone.

Toy standing by themselves in front of a tree with other toys sitting together in the background

In the last year and a half, I have noticed a dramatic increase in those that are reaching out for support due to a traumatic or sudden death of someone. I can’t help but think that these last couple of years of global grief has had a big impact on our ability to cope with mental health challenges and the grief we already experience in our lives.

Grief can be present in so many parts of our lives and is not always associated with death. We may experience grief through the loss of relationships, roles, or places.  We may grieve dreams we had that have not yet or cannot now come true. 

If you are supporting a child who has experienced a sudden or traumatic loss, here are some ways I have found helpful in processing their feelings of grief:

  1. Normalize and empathize with their complicated and conflicting feelings.
  2. Welcome all feelings.
  3. Explain in developmentally appropriate ways how their loved one or person significant to them, died.
  4. Use concrete language.
  5. Answer the questions they ask.
  6. Bring up their loved one or significant person to them.
  7. Make time for remembering activities.
  8. Make sure you take time to care for yourself and model that to them.

Toys sitting on a dock of a lake talking and fishing

Normalize and empathize with their complicated and conflicting feelings

When someone dies suddenly or in a traumatic way, we may experience confusing feelings such as anger, betrayal, or resentment. We may be upset with someone who died by suicide, overdose, or a sudden heart attack due to unhealthy choices. At the same time, we may be heartbroken by the loss.

Ask the children you are supporting how they feel. Allow space for them to express their feelings about the death of their loved one however that feels best for them, whether that is talking or expressing themselves through play, art, or other expressive activities.

Then after giving space for them to express their feelings, show your grief. Label the feelings that you may be feeling. Normalize for them that feelings can be complicated and can change. We may be feeling joy in remembering our loved ones, then sadness in missing them, then anger at them for not being physically present with us anymore. This might all happen quickly or slowly. Grief has no timeline.

To learn more on how to show your grief in ways that I have found helpful, check out my post titled Show Your Grief (and other feelings too).

Same toys from last pictures together with 5 Potato Head toys with different facial expressions standing in a sand tray in front of a dollhouse

Welcome all feelings

Some feelings are easier to express than others. It can be hard to be vulnerable and express feelings such as guilt, shame, and embarrassment. Sometimes we may express feelings that feel more expected from others. We may appear angry yet underneath we may be feeling guilt or embarrassment.

Another emotion that can be difficult to express, especially when grieving, is relief. We may miss someone and at the same time feel relief for various reasons. For example, if it was a difficult relationship, we may feel relief that we do not have to experience future challenging times with that person.

With the best intentions, adults often focus on all the good memories. It can be helpful in continuing their bonds with their loved ones by focusing on fond memories. It is also important to create a safe space for children to express all feelings. It may be helpful to talk about how feelings can be complicated, and that all feelings are welcome.  

Toys sitting in front of a dollhouse and 3 books focused on death, grief, and loss, and books on the table in front of the toys.

Explain in developmentally appropriate ways how their loved one died

If you are the caregiver of a child whose loved one has died, let them know how their loved one died. When I say to do this in developmentally appropriate ways, what I mean is, that every child is different in their development, so age is not the best way to determine what would be appropriate for the particular child or children you are supporting.

Depending on a child’s development, you may need to explain what death is. It can be helpful to explain that the person’s body is no longer working. That they can no longer eat or breathe and so their body cannot survive and cannot come back to life.

If the death was due to suicide or overdose, it may be helpful to explain that their loved one was struggling with mental health and was not able, for whatever the reason may be, to get the help they needed to survive. This is why it is so important for us to share where we are at with our mental health and get support when we are facing challenges.

For more details on how to help support children and teens if their loved one died by suicide, here is a resource that was written by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Toys hammering concrete and using construction vehicles

Use concrete language

When supporting children with grief due to the death of a loved one, use the words dead and died. Avoid euphemisms such as “passed away,” “we lost them,” or “they went to sleep.” Children are often concrete thinkers, so it can be helpful to give them concrete language.

Here is a link to a post I wrote on ways I have found helpful to try to use concrete language when explaining death to children.

Toys sitting on a tire out in nature. One toy is asking the other if they have any questions and the other has a talking bubble filled with questions marks

Answer the questions they ask

When we ask questions, it is often because we want to know the answer to those questions and if we cannot find the answer from our most trusted source, we may look to find the answers elsewhere. If we do not answer children’s questions, they will either imagine what the answer may be or will ask others.

It can be helpful to answer only the questions they ask and not get into details that may not be needed. Also, provide a safe, non-judgmental, space for them to ask any follow-up questions. 

Some questions that may come up could be why did they not want to stay here with me? Is there something wrong with me? Did I cause the death? This is why it is important to create a safe space for them to express all feelings, including guilt. Some children may feel that they are somehow to blame for the death.

It can be helpful to normalize these feelings and talk about how they could not have prevented the death of their loved one no matter what they could have done differently.

If you don’t know the answer to their question, say that. Let them know that you don’t have all the answers which will also help them be comforted to know that it is okay if they do not have all the answers.

Miniature astronaut and scuba divers sitting on miniature furniture talking with a grandfather clock and fireplace behind them, a paint palette, and toy

Talk about their loved one(s)

With the best intentions, we may not want to bring up someone’s loved one who has died as we may think that we are protecting them from their feelings of grief and loss. When someone dies in a sudden or traumatic way, we may be even more cautious of bringing up their loved ones because of the conflicting feelings that may be present.

For someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one, that grief is always present inside of them. Asking about their loved one and about how they are doing, let’s them know that you are someone they can connect with about their feelings.

If you would like some hopefully helpful hints on how to support children with grief and loss by bringing up their loved one, check out this post I wrote called Bring Them Up.

Small toys looking at their Memory Lanterns in nature

Make time for remembering activities

The hope with making and even scheduling times for sharing or expressing memories is to create a container for the grief they are experiencing so they know they can come back to it on this planned date and until then they can let go of some of their more difficult feelings of grief.

Click here for some ideas of remembering activities that you can use to help support children who are grieving the death of a loved one.

Toy sitting and staring off into the sunset, with tea pot, tea cup, and sunflower plant on table out in nature

Make sure you take time to care for yourself and model that to them

The most effective way to have someone learn a new way to cope is to model it yourself. It can be helpful to express when you are struggling, express how you are choosing to process your feelings, and share how you are going to care for yourself, so you have the strength to continue through the challenges you are facing.

Cordelia Mejin, a friend, and Registered Clinical Counsellor shares about how to bear witness to someone else’s grief while also tending to your own, in her post The Power of Witnessing Grief.

I hope you found this helpful, if there is anything I have not covered that you are curious about on how to help support children who have experienced the sudden or traumatic death of a loved one, please connect. If I don’t know the answer to your question, I will try to find you resources.

A great source of resources for supporting those grieving the death of a loved one suddenly or due to a traumatic loss is BC Bereavement Helpline’s helpful list of resources. They also have lots of resources on many aspects of various grief and loss. Click here to visit their resource page.