What You Should Never Say To A Child Who Has Lost Someone Close To Them

Dealing with a death in a family is hard for anyone, and it's especially hard when children are involved. Whether it was a grandparent, parent, or even a close friend, looking at death and grief through the eyes of a child can be difficult. How do you talk to them about death? What's too much and what is too little to talk about? How should they act? It's already a stressful and tough time, but adding in children adds a lot of other anxieties.


But similarly to how you'd support someone else who lost a loved one, supporting kids who've experienced a death in their life is really all about helping them — either helping them to understand or helping them work through their thoughts and emotions. And regardless of whether this person close to them died due to a life-threatening illness, natural causes, or a tragic accident, there are certain things you shouldn't say. Again, it's all about support and helping the child get through this loss, but you should never say these things to a child who has lost someone close to them.

Don't say 'I'm sorry'

It's very common to say "I'm sorry for your loss," or some variation of that, to someone whose loved one just died. However, as Darling pointed out, saying "I'm sorry" in regards to a person they're close to dying implies that maybe it's your fault. Kids are taught to apologize when they've hurt someone or when they've done something bad, even if they didn't mean to inflict pain or wrongdoing. So if you go up to a child and apologize for their family member's death, it can be almost an admission on your behalf. At the very least, it will confuse the kid.


With those optics in mind, Darling shares that you should say something more along the lines of "I'm sad that so-and-so died" or apologize for how sad it all is or that they're going through this tough experience. It really helps to think about this experience through the eyes of the child, especially if they've never been so close to a death before. It'll help with a lot of typical sayings we've been taught to say to others during their grieving periods, but that might come off very differently for children.

Make sure to be direct about death

On that note, euphemisms like "They're in a better place" are things you don't want to say to a child who's grieving. Darling noted that talking around death by saying their loved one has "gone to heaven" or is "sleeping" doesn't grasp the definitive nature of death. It makes it seem like the person could always come back, instead of the fact that they're gone forever.


On the note of describing the finality of death, make sure not to say they "lost" someone or that the person went to sleep. Even though the headline of this article talks about a child who's "lost someone" close to them — and we've used the term often so far — when you say this to a child, it is just another thing that can confuse them. Psychologist Dr. Lisa Damour told Unicef that you want to deliver the news in a way that isn't confusing.

"It's more useful for adults to warmly and tenderly say: 'I have some very sad news to share. Your grandparent has died. That means his body stopped working, and we won't get to see him again,'" Damour suggested. "It can be hard for parents to use such direct language, but it's important to be honest and transparent."


Don't bring up the bright side of things

Coalition to Support Grieving Students wrote in a "What not to say" handout about grieving children that trying to show them the "bright side" of things will often backfire. While it seems like a good thing to do — divert their attention to better things and things that make them happy — it often just stifles a child's grief. They write that while grieving, kids and adults should be encouraged to feel their feelings and express themselves however they want during this time. They need to really feel allowed to mourn and feel the loss and pain in order to heal. They don't need to feel like they have to be strong or get past this death. Along these lines, pointing out that they still have the other parent — or maybe the other sibling — is still a way of diminishing how they feel about the loss of this specific loved one. It comes from a good place, but it just confuses a kid further.


Instead, the Coalition to Support Grieving Students writes that you should talk about memories they had with the person. This allows the child to honor their emotions while also urging them to remember good times and hopefully cheering them up, even if it's just a little bit.

Don't try to relate their feelings to yours

Another tactic that might come to mind is the desire to relate to the child's grief. Maybe you've gone through grieving a loved one as well; maybe you even had to do it as a child. But the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement wrote for Psychology Today that it's not a good thing to say you "know just how" they feel. It might be a bit different if your situation was exactly the same. But if it wasn't, there's no way to really know how they're feeling.


Even though there are things such as collective grief, where a whole community is grieving because of a widespread tragedy, trying to connect your grief with a child's is not helpful. The National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement wrote, "Each child's experience is unique. Until children tell us what they are feeling, we can't really know." It could come off as condescending or tone-deaf in a child's eyes, which could make them close in on themselves.

Don't say they're in a 'better place'

It might seem like a helpful thing to guide a child to think about their loved one in a "better place," especially if they were in great physical or emotional pain before they died. However, saying this to a child implies that they left the child there and found somewhere better to be instead of with them. As you can imagine, this is especially hurtful or jarring at a time when they're missing this loved one dearly.


Claire Mellenthin, a child and family therapist, wrote on her website that a child would go straight to thinking, "What could be better than being here alive with me?" Depending on the age of the child, this could lead them to put blame on themselves because they might have done something to scare this person away. Or maybe they weren't good enough to keep them around. This is a big blow to anyone, but especially to a child who's grieving. As stated before, being as direct as possible with a kid while discussing death is the best thing you can do for them. Even if the person was sick, talk about how they can no longer feel pain, not that they're in a "better place."

Don't dictate or police how the child is grieving

While this one might be a no-brainer, children don't need to hear that they should "be happy" that their loved one is in heaven or no longer suffering from pain. Mellenthin wrote that thinking any child should be happy when they're grieving and in pain is absurd and not a good way to speak about their loss.


"You may feel peace or tenderness or even relief, but most humans do not experience feelings of happiness and joy as part of their grieving process," she wrote. "When we say statements like this to kids (or adults) we unintentionally are shaming them for feeling otherwise." Basically, stay away from any sentence that involves the word "should" when speaking about grief with a child. Policing how they should feel will make them bottle up their emotions or have very strong, negative responses instead. Always let them know that whatever they're feeling is valid and okay.

Darling also wrote that other variations of this, such as "You just need to take your mind off it. Your mom wouldn't want you to be sad," is a form of emotional policing as well. A lot of sayings on this list could fall under dictating emotions, even unintentionally. But the sooner you think about how your words might be perceived by a child, the better you'll be able to gauge what they need and how to properly talk to them about their loss.