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Help Kids Process Death and AFTER ANNIE by Anna Quindlen

Cover of the book After Annie by Anna Quindlen used to teach ways to help kids process death.

Annie was making dinner when she felt a headache. “Bill, get me some advil, my head is killing me,” she said directly before crumpling to the ground, dropping dead in front of her husband and four children. There had been no warning signs or time for closure. Bill could barely face reality and didn’t know how to talk to his kids about it. The kids floundered. The oldest son acted out at school, the middle son started wetting the bed, and the youngest son truly believed that mom was one day coming home. With Dad unable to parent and her brother’s falling apart, the oldest child, 13-year-old Ali, became the caretaker.


Inevitably, the death of a parent is incredibly difficult. But, in this situation, the trauma was compounded by Bill’s lack of knowledge on how to communicate with his kids about their mother’s death.


Here are ways adults can help kids process a loved one’s death.


Talk to Kids Right Away: Immediately communicating with kids helps them see you are supportive and reliable.


Tell the Truth in Clear Terms: Be honest about what happened and use the words “dead” or “died.” Euphemisms can confuse kids and stall the grieving process.


Answer Questions: Kids have lots of questions, so answer them honestly and with age-appropriate terms. You may not have all the answers. That’s ok. “I don’t know” is a reasonable response.


Enable Kids to Engage in Rituals: Let kids pick a way to honor and grieve. Ideas include writing something for the service or burying a special item alongside their loved one.


Grieve Together: Normalize crying and sadness by showing kids that you feel the loss, too. Let them see you sad, happy, and everything in between (sometimes all at once).


Talk, Talk, Talk: Connect by asking kids how they feel and sitting with them in their emotions. Discuss memories about the person who died so kids can safely and lovingly think about them.


Prepare and Plan: Before big events, like birthdays or holidays, talk to kids about celebrating without the person who died present and ways to remember them during the event.


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