Family Matters: Finding ways to help children cope with death

Diana Boggia

Dear Diana,

I just received a phone call that my ex-husband’s mother died. My two daughters loved her and I know they will be upset, so I want to find the right words to help them through this. I also need to prepare them for their first funeral with someone they loved, and prepare them for the process of it all. They were traumatized at a previous funeral of a family member they didn’t even know, so I hate to think of what this might do to them.

The school counselor and I told the girls that their grandmother is in heaven and will watch over them. My 7-year-old shut down and didn’t acknowledge anything that was said. My 9-year-old kept smiling and did a lot of awkward giggling. When it finally hit her she said she was mad, sad and worried, but felt brave. She became extremely moody, grumpy and flat out mean by threatening to hurt her sister. She doesn’t want to go to the funeral, but is worried about her father’s reaction. I will respect her wishes and not force her to go. I would appreciate any ideas to help my girls.

Dear Mom,

As this is a very difficult time for everyone, surround your girls with thought and understanding. I have as much concern for your younger daughter who shut down as I do for her older sister.

Family values, spirituality and religious beliefs may determine whether a child will be included with funeral preparation and rituals. Encourage the older one to share her feelings with her father over the next few days and, with your support, express that she wants to remember her grandma as healthy.  

Host a celebration ceremony in your home. Encourage your girls to share their memories and love for their grandmother. Fill the room with family photos and initiate conversation with “I remember when.” Avoid detailed discussions of the illness that led to her death, as some children develop the misconception that if they become ill they may die.

Allow each of your daughters to choose a framed picture for her bedroom. Place additional photos in a small album for each to keep. Death is abstract, so help them keep their grandmother close to their hearts with fond memories and photos.

Reinforce comforting messages that their grandmother is in a wonderful, beautiful place, watching over them every day. Encourage them to talk to her through rainbows, raindrops, snowflakes, smiles and tears.  

Help your girls write love notes to be placed in her bed (her casket) or sent up in a balloon ceremony. Encourage some form of journaling to help them process their emotions.

Counseling, praying, visiting her grave and planting flowers may help.

Your girls are moving through the grief process. They will heal with your love and support.

Diana Boggia, M.Ed., is a parenting coach who lives in Stark County, Ohio. She is author of “Parenting with a Purpose.” Send your child-rearing questions to or The Repository, c/o Family Matters, 500 Market Ave. S, Canton, OH 44702. Find parenting resources at her website,