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When a Loved One Passes Away: Tips for Helping Children Understand the Cycle of Life

I highly recommend*, as it was started by two moms who wanted their children to have books that would feed the imagination, while instilling a respect for diversity and a love of the planet.  The Mother’s Club Family Learning Center in Pasadena, an organization with whom I am working this year as a Sustaining Advisor for a Jr. League Placement at the facility, utilizes English and Spanish versions (along with the read along CDs) to help immigrant parents learn to read with and teach their children important literacy skills.

The following recommendations for helping children through loss are wonderful, and while I hope you never need to use them, we all know that passing is part of our circle of life.  Helping our children learn to walk through death with dignity and a greater understanding of their place in this world will help them develop into well adjusted and empathetic adults.

Taken from

Aging and dying are not easy concepts for anyone to understand, particularly young children. These topics are often fraught with wonderment and fear, and can be challenging for parents to explain to their children. When a loved one passes away, or moves through the aging process, we want to help ease our children’s anxieties, and guide them through the grieving process in a healthy manner. Often though, we find ourselves perplexed as to the best ways to approach the subject.

The Gift, a book that explores a girl’s journey through life, is a wonderful tool for helping a child through a loss.  Written by Ann Duffy and illustrated by Rob Ryan.  Recommended for ages 8+, but I have read reviews where parents have used it with younger children too.

  • You know your child and family the best. Is a loved one ill or showing signs of age? Find out what may be on your child’s mind by sharing age-appropriate information with them and asking them how they feel and what they think. Listen to them closely and consider your responses carefully. Take some time in your reply  — you don’t need to say the first thing that comes to mind. Children respond well when adults say, “That’s a great question. I’m not sure of the best way to answer that but I will think of a way and let you know as soon as I do.” Then, be sure you do get back to them so that their question is answered.
  • Know that there is no right or wrong way of explaining the aging process to children. As with so much in parenting, it is best to trust your instincts, and keep the conversation going long after you brought it up the first time.
  • If a family member or loved one is facing a severe illness, it’s often best to provide appropriate information to your child so they are kept informed, and to prevent any surprises that may occur.
  • The questions about aging and the life cycle will evolve as your child grows and faces new situations. Keep in mind that children will most likely not be satisfied with one simple answer at a single point in time. The topic should be revisited periodically to address your child’s current fears and concerns.
  • If a loved one has passed away recently, create family traditions to celebrate their life. These traditions can be an important way for children to express their feelings and keep the loved one’s memory alive. Some ideas including eating the person’s favorite foods, wearing their favorite colors, dedicating a dinner conversation to sharing favorite memories, etc.
  • Share with your child the beauty of life with traditions and celebrations. Some ideas to mark the passage of time include planting a tree on special birthdays, displaying photos of loved ones, or keeping a journal with memories of cherished visits with grandparents and other loved ones.
  • Read books with your child that feature characters of different ages. As you read with your child, ask them questions about what they may be thinking or feeling. Books are a wonderful way to teach children about all aspects of life.
  • Be there for your children. Often when facing difficult realities, children find the most comfort in the presence of a parent. Take a long walk together, spend time on the couch together, identify times when you can be fully present with your child to talk, listen, and comfort them.
  • You are not alone. Explaining the circle of life to children is difficult for even the most seasoned parents. You might find support and ideas from trusted members of your community, such as members of the clergy, close friends, family, teachers, and counselors.

*  A note from Smartypantz- this was not a paid endorsement from Barefoot books.  I just think it’s a wonderful publishing house with a fantastic mission!

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