Tricky topics with children - the death of a close family member
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Tricky topics with children – the death of a close family member

by Freya Lucas

September 30, 2022

For some children, the death of someone close to them in the first eight years of their lives can have a devastating impact. 


Caring adults, including those in the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector, can be conflicted about how to support children through such a complex and vulnerable time. The piece below has been prepared based on information from the Raising Children Network and is best suited to those working with children from three to eight years of age. 


A time of many feelings 


When a parent, grandparent or other formative adult in a child’s life passes away, children can feel a range of emotions, including sadness, anger, confusion, bewilderment or fear. 


They may be worried that they had something to do with the death, anxious about the safety of the other core adults in their life, or be confused about the permanency of the situation. 


Children might react to the death of a parent by:



Other children may “bottle” their feelings, and not react outwardly, which is also a common response. Feelings may depend on how the death happened – sudden death and expected deaths are often experienced differently by children. 


Factors such as the children’s age and development, their beliefs about death, their life experiences, and the support they get from family, friends, ECEC, school and support services can also play a part.


As children grow and develop, they’ll understand their loss in new ways. The way they feel and grieve will probably change too.


Children who have experienced the loss of someone close through a violent or traumatic death, or who have witnessed the death of someone close will likely need specialised help and support. 


It’s important to talk, and to be open 


If children would like to talk about the death and their experience of it, it is important for caring adults to facilitate this. 


Talking can help children to understand, accept and cope with the death. It also sends the message that talking is good and all emotions are OK. This can give them a sense of safety and security.


Here are some tips to help:


  • Choose a safe, private, comfortable and familiar place to talk.
  • If you’re too distressed to talk, ask a trusted colleague to support you or do some of the talking for you.
  • Explain what has happened simply and in language children can understand. This includes using the word ‘death’ or ‘died’. If you say that someone has ‘passed away’ or ‘went to sleep and didn’t wake up’, children might be confused or frightened about going to sleep.
  • Work with the family closely to mirror the same information they are sharing with the child
  • Expect the same questions over and over as children try to understand what has happened.
  • If you don’t know how to answer the child’s questions, tell them you’ll find out and come back to them when you know more.


These conversations will probably take time, and children will probably have more questions as they grow and develop. They may want to revisit the topic after spending time processing the things they have learned. 


Supporting children and families 


Good mental health and wellbeing can help children through this tough time. Positive relationships and a healthy lifestyle, including healthy eating and physical activity, are important to children’s mental health and wellbeing.


Children who have experienced the death of someone close to them will need support for a long time, and their support needs will probably change over time. These ideas might help:


  • If the child wants to talk, stop what you’re doing and give them your full attention. And always give the child reassurance and comfort – for example, by hugging or sitting with them.
  • Think of and suggest rituals that are meaningful. For example, you could ask the child or family if they’d like to help you set up a special place with a photo where educators and the child can talk to the person who has died.
  • Help children to recognise, name and express their emotions. Reading books about grief, watching age-appropriate videos and playing can help. Children could play with puppets or write, draw, sing or dance.
  • Encourage families to speak with the service often about the child’s journey through grief. 


The death of a parent might lead to big changes in a family’s life, including:


  • lower family income
  • a move to a different house
  • a move to a different school or preschool
  • new caregivers
  • more or less time with extended family and friends
  • relationship changes among family members.


Routines are one of the best ways for children to cope with the stress, uncertainty and confusion that these changes can bring. Routines keep everyday life familiar and predictable and can help children to feel safe and secure.


After a parent’s death, a family might be eligible for some financial support from Services Australia, and services can support families to access these resources. 


Other resources which may help families include: 



Children’s grief over time


As children adjust to the death they may find new ways to remember the person who was lost.


It might help to talk about the person’s personality or life, share funny stories about them, or do activities that they enjoyed like playing their favourite sport or listening to music they liked. 


Children may feel upset at times like Mothers or Fathers Day, the birthday or death anniversary, special occasions or milestones, and holidays. Planning for these events can give both the child and the caring adult’s in their life a sense of control and reduce their anxiety beforehand.


Leading up to those events it can be helpful for caring adults to talk with the child about how they are feeling, and to offer extra comfort and reassurance. 


These other guides from the Raising Children Network may also support: 


Death: how to talk about it with children


When someone dies: helping children cope


Traumatic events: first response to help children


Traumatic events: supporting children in the days and weeks afterwards


Talking about tough topics with children

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