Dealing with a death or other major loss is never easy, but for a child, it can be particularly confusing and frustrating. They may feel numb and angry at the same time, while simultaneously dealing with both excess energy and exhaustion. No two kids react to grief in the same way, but there are a variety of coping strategies and activities that may offer some help and relief during a difficult time. As an adult in the situation, it’s your job to provide support to the grieving child and help walk them through the healing process (even if you’re not quite sure what that will look like yourself).
Making the situation more complex? The same activities that may be helpful for a 4-year-old may not necessarily work for an 8- or 12-year-old. Just use your best judgment, Mama. This is tough stuff at any age. If you need some ideas, here are some grief and loss activities to help kids cope with death.
1. Finish the Sentence
This activity comes courtesy of the National Center for Grieving Children & Families. It involves giving a child the following prompts and asking them to finish the sentence (either out loud, or in writing):
The thing that makes me feel the saddest is…
If I could talk to the person who died, I would ask…
Since the death, my family doesn’t…
My worst memory is…
If I could change things, I would…
One thing that I liked to do with the person who died was…
When the person died I…
Since the death, my friends…
After the death, school…
When I am alone…
2. Before and After Family
Here’s another one from the National Center for Grieving Children & Families. Have the child fold a piece of paper in half — ask them to draw their family before their loved one’s death on one side, and then what the family looks like now, after the death, on the other side. This may help prompt discussions on how they’re feeling about this change.
3. Create a Memory Box
The Memory Box by Joanna Rawland, a touching story about remembering a loved one, comes with a built-in grief activity for kids: having them create their own memory box. All you need to do is find some sort of box (or another container) from around the house, have them decorate it, and then suggest that they fill it with objects that give them good memories of the person they lost. This could be anything from drawings, to cards, to photos, to a special present they received from the deceased.
4. Create a Journal
Find or purchase an empty journal or notebook and encourage the child to draw and/or write about how they’re feeling on any given day. They can include the date, if they’d like, as a way to look back at how they were feeling during different periods of time.
5. Write a Letter to Your Person
If the child feels as though they still have more to say to the person they lost, let them know that they can always write that person a letter. If they need some guidance, you can use this printable template from The Dougy Center.
6. Write a Poem Based on Their Name
Another writing activity from The Dougy Center involves having a child spell out the name of the person they’ve lost. Using the letters of the name, they can then write an acrostic poem with words that remind them of that person.
7. Make a Memory Bracelet
According to certified grief counselor Dr. Alejandra Vasquez, using “transitional” objects like jewelry can be a good way for a child to tell a story about their deceased loved one. For this activity, take your little one to a craft store to go “bead shopping” and let them pick out beads that they’d like to use to represent their loved one. Once you’re back at home, get some string, and help them put their bracelet together. It will be something they can wear whenever they’re missing their person.
8. Make a Scream Box
Sometimes you’ve just gotta scream, right? So, you might as well have a special box for the occasion. These instructions for making a scream box come from Ryan’s Heart, a nonprofit to help grieving families:
Equipment: Cereal box, paper towel tube, tape, paper, scissors
1. Stuff a cereal box with crumpled paper
2. Close the cereal box and cut a hole in the top for the paper towel tube.
3. Tape the paper towel tube to the hole in the cereal box.
4. Decorate the box however you want.
5. Scream into the box!
9. I Wonder, I Wish, I Hope
In this printable page from The Dougy Center, children are given the opportunity to write and/or draw about what they wonder, wish, and hope as they’re dealing with their loss.
10. Create a Family Flag
Little ones who love arts and crafts may appreciate creativity-based grief activities for kids, like this one from Ryan’s Heart:
1. Use fabric of choice and cut to the desired size.
2. Hem and sew one seam along the edge for the flagpole to slide through.
3. Decorate and embellish as desired. Use small jewels or photos that remind your child of your loved one or your family’s journey through grief.
4. Proudly display your flag to encourage hope for the future and represent love for the past.
11. Make a Handprint
If you have a kid, you’ve probably made at least one handprint (and might even still have the supplies at home). Tell them that this is a special one to help remember the person who died. Write their name and age on the dried print or, if your little one is old enough, let them write their own name. You can also include the date of the loved one’s passing if you’d like.
12. Read a Special Book
Maybe there’s a particular book that the deceased used to read to or with your child. If it doesn’t make them too sad, you can try to incorporate the book into their bedtime routine, or at least give it a special spot on their bookshelf to help remember the person they’ve lost.
13. Emotion Matching Activity
Younger children may not have the vocabulary or ability to fully express their feelings and often need help putting words to emotions. An emotion matching activity will match their feeling word with an action word from two different columns. This activity is best suited for children between the ages of 4 to 6.
14. Pot Heart Building
Death has a significant impact on a family and in a way it breaks a piece of everyone. But when things are cracked it doesn’t mean they can’t become whole again. It just means things are different. To explain complicated feelings like this to your kids, first, get a large clay pot. Break it into large pieces so that there’s enough for everyone in the family. Each person should get a piece of the pot to write their name on. They should also decorate their piece using markers, glitter, stickers, and whatever else your kids want to put on it. Then work as a family to put the pot back together. Once it’s glued and sturdy, explain to your kids how it relates to loss. Then plant flowers or fruit inside so it can also be a piece of remembrance of the person your family lost.
15. Make an Anagram
Anagrams are used for several occasions, such as Mother’s Day, birthdays, and even the first day of school. When a child has lost a loved one, a great way for them to grieve and manage their emotions in a creative and healthy manner is by taking the name of the deceased and turning it into art. Gather your colored paper, markers, glitter, and anything else your child likes to use during arts and crafts. Not only does this force your kid to think about positive descriptions associated with their loved one, but it’ll also make them feel better to remember the way someone was.
Benefits of grief counseling for children
Sometimes it is hard to tap into the mind of a child, especially when they’re dealing with grief and battling their own trauma. If you feel like your kid is handling the death of a loved one hard, having a tough time recovering from a loss, or may face future emotional issues, it may be time to seek outside help. Children usually struggle to process their emotions so their anxiety, fear, and confusion, can manifest in unhealthy ways. This usually looks like an inability to focus in school or behavioral issues.
A grief counselor would help your child:
- Develop a healthier outlook on death and their loss.
- Understand and process their emotions.
- Speak about their feelings in a neutral and unbiased space.