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Guiding an 8-Year Old Girl through Grief

For aunts, uncles and immediate family members with an 8-year-old niece whose mother died. Download the digital guide here
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What Your Niece Understands about Death and Grief

At eight years old, your niece is at an incredible moment of childhood. As a young child, she is creative and curious, has a vivid imagination, and learns about the world and herself through play. 

She is old enough that she has a deepening sense of the difference between reality and fantasy and a growing understanding of the meaning of permanency. 

All children are unique and different, and you are one of the people who knows your niece best. She may not fit this description perfectly, but below are some benchmarks of what a child her age understands about death and grief to give you a starting point for meeting her where she is on this journey. 

Children of this age: 

  • Likely understand that death is permanent and the person cannot return. 

  • Often worry that their own thoughts or actions caused the death. 

  • May believe that death is like a person, ghost, or angel who comes to get you and take you to a different place. 

 

In the following sections, we’ll share more about these developmental understandings of death and how you can support your niece in her thoughts, worries, and questions. 

Talking about what death means

Families and cultures all have different words they use and ways they talk about death. In general, using concrete words is helpful when talking with young children still learning what death means. The term “died” might feel uncomfortable for you to say, but phrases like “passed away” or “went to sleep” can be confusing for children. 

At this age, children are beginning to understand that death is permanent. But they still might need help to understand what it means to die. Talking simply and truthfully about what happens to a person’s body when they die can help. 

For example, you can share that people don’t need to breathe, eat, or drink when they die. The word “don’t” is helpful here - while “can’t” might sound like the person needs help or is struggling, “they don’t need to breathe” helps make it clear that a body that has died is simply different from a body that is alive. 

When children do not understand something or feel they are missing information, they often fill in that information with something they create in their own heads - and often, what they come up with may be more upsetting than the truth. 

It is developmentally appropriate for young children to be focused on themselves and see the world through their lens and actions, and so when it comes to the death of a loved one when a child does not understand why a death happened, they might imagine that they caused it. 

If your niece said hurtful words to her mother or disobeyed her, she might imagine that those moments caused her mom to become sick and die. If your niece ever says something like this to you, you’ll know it is a typical worry. 

You can assure her that absolutely nothing she did had any part in her mom’s illness or death. You can talk more about the illness and allow her to ask questions about what causes it, what it does in the body, etc. 

Anytime you don’t know the answer to a question, you can always say, “That’s a great question. I don’t know.” - and let her know you’ll research to learn more and tell her what you find. 

Very young children do not have a mental framework for the difference between reality and fantasy. Your niece is well on her way to having a solid understanding of what is real and what is not real, but she may need your help with those lines when it comes to understanding death. When it comes to what happens to a body after it dies, you can help your niece understand simple realities - her mom has no pain and does not feel afraid or lonely. Regarding heaven or an afterlife, you can share whatever cultural and religious beliefs you and her family hold and wonder together about those questions. 

Takeaways
  • Be simple and truthful with your words.

  • Let your niece know that you are there for all of her questions anytime she has them.

  • Be prepared to have the same conversation many times as children process and solidify their understanding.

Common Grief Reactions

Just like adults, children are individuals with their own temperaments, beliefs, experiences, and situations, all of which will influence how they experience their grief and how they show it. There is no right or wrong way to feel or to grieve. Here are some reactions your niece may have as she grieves the loss of her mother:

  • Initial denial or disbelief.

  • Questions, confusions, or fears about death.

  • Difficulty and changes in her schoolwork, interest in hobbies, or new or deepened perfectionism.

  • Insecurities and anxiety about herself, others, and her world. 

  • Attempts to appear as though nothing is wrong. 

  • Sadness, physical aches, and pains, anger, or irritability.

The loss of a caregiver is a tremendous grief to a young child. 

Your niece may be seeking to have some control over her world by holding her emotions close or overperforming at school or home, whether that looks like perfectionism in homework or taking on care responsibilities for siblings or other family members. 

You can help her process her grief by showing her some of your own. You can show her and let her know that it is okay to cry, it is okay to feel angry, and it is okay to feel scared. 

When she knows that those emotions are safe and will be held by a loving adult like you, she will be more able to share them, and you will be more able to support her. 

Answering Hard Questions and Knowing What to Say

One of the best things you can do is let your niece know you are always here for her questions. When she asks you questions, here are some things to keep in mind before you answer: 

When your niece asks you a question about her mom’s death or what will happen now in her life, you might find that the best way to begin to answer is by asking her a simple question in return. You can say, “I’m so glad you asked me about that. What have you heard?” or “What do you think about that?” Giving your niece a chance to share what she’s already heard or what’s on her mind can give you more information about what’s really concerning her or what question she wants you to answer. 

When you answer her question, try to go slowly. Give a simple and direct answer for only the question she asked, then ask what she thinks or what else she’s wondering about. It can be easy for adults to say more in an attempt to ease worries, but it is best to follow the grieving child’s lead on what they are ready to hear and want to know. 

It is okay to say you don’t know the answer to a question. You might say, “I wonder about that, too.” or “Let’s try to find the answer to that together.” or“I don’t know right now, but I will let you know when I know.”

It is often helpful for kids to learn that even grownups don’t have all the answers, and when they don’t know the answer to something, they’ll ask for help.

Even when you don’t have an answer, you can build your niece’s sense of security and trust through your honesty and commitment to being there for her. 

Sometimes knowing how to begin a conversation can be the most challenging part. Here are a few ideas of conversation starters you can use to give your niece the opportunity to share what she is thinking and feeling:

  • I wonder… 

  • What’s on your mind? 

  • Tell me more about…

  • I don’t know for certain… 

  • I find myself wondering… 

  • I don’t know what it feels like…and I imagine…

  • I notice that…

Similarly, we know that there are helpful comments you can hold in mind when speaking to grieving children, such as: 

  • I’ve been thinking of you. 

  • You’ve been on my mind. 

  • All of your feelings are okay. 

  • Sometimes, you might want to talk about your feelings…and sometimes, you might want to distract yourself and remember that you’re a kid. Are you in a talking mood or a playing mood? 

  • What are some of your hard days? 

  • I want to share a memory I have of your mom. Would that feel okay for you? 

  • I don’t know what to say…because there are no words. 

  • It feels hard because it is hard. 

While people often have the best intentions, they often make various unhelpful statements to grieving children because of their own discomfort. Language matters when speaking to grievers, so please be thoughtful when choosing your words. We encourage you to… 

  • NOT use words like “at least” or “just.” 

  • Avoid platitudes such as “you won’t always be so sad,” “they’re in a better place,” or “they wouldn’t want you to be so sad.” 

  • NOT make assumptions about how they’re feeling (i.e., “You must be feeling…”) 

  • NOT center yourself (i.e., “I know how hard this is…”) 

  • NOT place judgment on their behaviors or feelings (i.e., “Why are you acting out?”) 

  • NOT assign your own timeline to their grief (i.e., “You should be over this by now.”) 

How to Show Up

Death can make people feel uncomfortable. Friends, neighbors, and close family sometimes pull back in the name of "giving space". 

If you have the ability to visit your niece and her family in person, we encourage you to prioritize that time during their transition after the death. If you are not able to visit regularly, calls, texts, and video calls are encouraged. 

It is normal to wonder if people want space, to be left alone, or to be “given time.” These are thoughtful considerations, and you can always ask, “Would you prefer to be alone today?” before a visit, but in reality, people who are grieving often feel lonely and crave the presence of friends and family. 

You may feel uncomfortable or uncertain about how to engage with your niece, or perhaps even more so with the adults in her life, after the death. 

Death can make people feel uncomfortable, so often, friends, neighbors, and close family tend to pull back in the name of “giving space.” This often causes increased isolation and deepened grief. 

Even if you feel uncomfortable, you can make an incredible difference for your niece and her family by continuing to show up like you did before the death and increasing your visits and check-ins. 

Here are some ideas and thoughts about what this might look like: 
 

  • Offer to bring the family a meal, and offer to stay. “I’d like to bring over a meal tonight. I can drop it at the door if you need space today, but I’d also love to stay and visit. It would be great to hear how you’re doing and spend time together.” 

  • Invite the family to an activity or your home. “I’m going for a hike this Saturday. Would you like to join?” or “We’re having pizza and a movie at our house on Friday. Would you all like to come over?” 

  • If you had regular get-togethers before the death or illness, consider resuming those. A sense of normalcy and a reliable opportunity to spend time with others can be a welcome gift. 

  • Reach out about special occasions and opportunities to celebrate. If a birthday is coming up, for example, “I know this birthday is coming up. Do you have thoughts about what feels right for celebrating this year? I’d be glad to help you think about it or make a plan.” 

Say Their Name

When people are grieving a loss, they are always aware of their grief, even if it is momentarily below the surface. There is no need to worry that you are reminding someone of their grief by bringing up the deceased loved one in conversation. When you are with your niece or her family, you can feel confident that bringing up her mother is okay and good. It shows that you care and remember her and are willing to talk about her and their feelings about their loss.

 

Remembering Together

Remembering a loved one and keeping their stories and memories alive is one of the most important ways we move through grief after a loss. You have a special role to play in your niece’s process of remembering her mother. 

Children sometimes worry that their memories of their loved one will fade over time. One tremendous gift you can give your niece is to help her remember. 

  • You can offer to make a memory book together using photos, special items, and written memories. 

  • When you feel ready, you might find it helpful in your own grieving process to write a letter to your niece about her mom. You could write stories from your own history and relationship with her mom, about important moments in her mom’s life that you were part of or had the chance to witness, and details about her mom’s life that she may not yet know but would appreciate someday. You could also write your own memories about watching her with her mom and special things you remember her mom saying about her. Maybe this is a gift you’d hope to share with her when she is older, and maybe you share pieces of the stories and memories now. 

  • A simple but powerful thing you can do, now and in the future, is point out to your niece the moments that make you think of her mom. Something like “I’m going to have chocolate ice cream because it was your mom’s favorite” or “your laugh sounds so much like your mom’s” can help you both feel connected to her and to each other and will let your niece know that you do and will remember her mom, just like she does. 

  • Take a look at our Smile Network on our website, a free, private, and secure online community where you can share memories, post photos 

Support for the Journey

Grief is a journey you, your niece, and your family have unwillingly embarked on together. It will ebb and flow and change for each of you. One thing that is always true is that it is okay and good to seek support.

 

What Really Matters

We hope this guide has given you confidence and clarity around supporting your niece with her questions and feelings. 

We hope, more than anything, that you move forward with the truth that the best thing you can offer her now and for the rest of her life is your love and presence.

 

All healing, learning, and growing happens in relationships. Your words matter far less than your simply being there. Your niece is so fortunate to have you.

 

 

Our Thanks To: 

Dakota Becker, MSW, LMSW

Clinical Consultant 

Emma Swift Lee, M.Ed.

Child and Family Development Consultant

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