August 2, 2018 Brigitte Ganger

Helping Children Cope With the Death of a Peer

Kids need support as they navigate loss for the first time

Helping Children Cope With the Death of a Peer
The loss of a peer challenges our mortality. Children facing this may grapple with realizations that they, too, will one day die. (Shutterstock)

Losing a peer is one of the most troubling deaths that can occur. Even if the relationship was not close, the loss of someone who is in the same age range, career or demographic as you presents difficult questions about mortality. Accidental deaths are a reminder that life is tenuous, and can be taken away at any time. Illnesses that result in the death of a peer can spark panic about healthy living. There are countless ways to compare this kind of death to yourself, even if the circumstances are different. 

For children, the death of a peer might not only threaten their feelings of safety, but could also be their first time losing a loved one.

The grief of a child

Losing a grandparent or other adult family member is typically the first bereavement experience a child will have. They often have a much harder time coping with loss, as they may not understand the permanence of death while lacking the vocabulary to express grief emotions. These are things that parents can help their children process, by reinforcing that elderly people die after long lives. Reassuring the child that their own death is still far off can comfort them as they begin to understand that life ends. Children can grasp the concept of death in relation to old age. 

Talk to your child about the loss they have suffered. Seek out the assistance of a qualified grief counselor if you aren't sure how to proceed. (Shutterstock)

However, if one of their young friends passes away, there will likely be feelings of confusion, anger and fear. As a parent or guardian, it can be painful to watch your child experience such emotions in regards to loss. It's important that you are there for your child while they are grieving the loss of a peer.

Here are some ways that you can help a child who is grappling with questions of mortality:

  • Avoid ambiguity

When a child's friend passes away, it may seem tempting to say that they simply "went to sleep" or "moved away." However, this ambiguity can hurt children later in life when they realize the truth. By being vague or dishonest when explaining death to a child, it can directly impact the way they trust others and the way they process loss.

  • Answer the hard questions

Children's brains function in black and white; understanding nuance develops as they mature. Many of the questions they may have about their peer's death will seem heavy and difficult to answer. It's important that you answer all of their questions—even the hard ones. While you may not have all of the answers yourself, it's crucial that you communicate with your child and reassure them that they can speak to you during difficult times. This is a chance to introduce them to shades of gray that exist in grief, loss and fear of death. 

  • Talk about their peer 

When someone passes away, a fantastic way to honor their memory—and cope with the loss yourself—is to talk about them. If your child's peer passes away, continue to speak about the good times your child had with their friend. By ignoring their passing, it can imply to your children that they death wasn't a big deal or that you don't care. 

If you lack confidence discussing grief openly, consider seeking out the services of a qualified grief counselor for your child.

  • Keep regular routines

If your child's peer passes away, keep their routine as regular as possible. The death of their peer is likely already uprooting part of their normal routine, so it's important that nothing else changes too dramatically. Though they may need time away from school in the immediate aftermath (and to attend the funeral of their friend), returning to normal activities is a healthy way to remember that life goes on. There is comfort in familiarity and your child will need this now more than ever.

A final word

Grief is a painful process for people of all ages. However, it can be harder to understand when the deceased was young. There are things you can do as the parent or guardian to ensure that your child is able to cope with the death of their peer. 

The process may be long and challenging, but if you stay by their side—and implement some of the suggestions—your child will learn how to process complex emotions. Death is inevitable. When your child experiences future losses, hopefully they will put into practice the lessons they learned from the loss of a peer.

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