Suddenly Parents

Dear Mamas,

My partner and I recently became instant parents when his sister and her husband were killed in a tragic accident and their 6-year-old son came to live with us. We adore this little guy and are all in, in terms raising him, but neither of us has experience with children — especially children who’ve experienced loss like this — and we’re a bit scared.

What should we say  and what shouldn’t we say? Talk about what happened, or don’t talk about it? Encourage his grief, or try to keep things cheerful? It’s just so hard to know (and uncomfortable to attempt it).

Also, he’ll be starting school here with us in the fall, but in the meantime there’s a long summer to get through. For now we’ve hired a college-age nanny to be with him while we’re at work, but should he be spending time with other kids his age at summer day camp or something? This is all brand new and we feel like we’re flying by the seat of our pants. Help!


Hi Carrie,

I am so sorry for your family’s loss. What you and your partner are doing is life-changing — both for this little dude and for both of you. You are paying it forward in the biggest and most meaningful way. That is huge. Thank you.

These are BIG questions, requiring more in-depth discussion than we can fully address here, so please do take a look at the helpful resources listed at the end of the post. In the meantime, there are some basic guidelines that can help you structure the questions and issues you and little dude will be confronting over the next days, months and years.

Children see and hear the same things surrounding the loss of loved ones that adults do. However, their understanding of what these things mean are quite different. Adults can help children understand death, but this involves more than just giving them the facts. It means helping them grasp some important new concepts.

First, there are four essential truths that have to be conveyed age-appropriately to children who have suffered such a loss:

  1. Death is irreversible. In cartoons, television shows and movies, children see characters “die” and then come back to life. In real life, this doesn’t happen. Children  may view death as temporary. They often think of people who have died as being far away, like on a trip. Sometimes adults reinforce this belief by using euphemisms, like “Daddy had to go away,” or, “Mommy went to sleep.” Children may feel angry when their parent doesn’t call or show up. If children don’t think death is permanent, they have little reason to begin to mourn. Mourning is a painful process that requires a change in the relationship. An essential first step is understanding and accepting that the loss is permanent.
  2. All life functions end completely at death. Very young children view all things as living—their sister, a toy, the mean rock that just “tripped” them. In day-to-day conversations, adults may add to this confusion by talking about the child’s doll being hungry or saying they got home late because the car “died.” Young children are sometimes encouraged to talk to a parent who has died. They may be told their loved one is “watching over them” from heaven. Sometimes children are asked to draw a picture or write a note to the parent who died. These comments can be confusing and  frightening to children. If Mommy and Daddy can read a note, why can’t they come back? 
  3. Everything alive eventually dies. Parents often reassure children that they will always be there to take care of them. They tell them not to worry about dying themselves. This wish to shield children from death is understandable. But when a death directly affects children, this reality can no longer be hidden from them. When a parent has died, children may fear that others close to them — perhaps everyone they care about —will also die.
  4.  There are physical reasons someone dies (it is NOT the child’s fault). Children must understand why their parent died. If children don’t understand the real reason, they are more likely to come up with explanations that cause guilt or shame. The goal is to help children feel they understand what has happened. Offer a brief explanation, using simple and direct language. Graphic details aren’t necessary and should be avoided, but a clear, simple explanation is important.

What to Do

  • Speak gently, but frankly and directly. Use the words “dead” and “died.”
  • Check back to see what little dude understands.
  • Present the facts (gently) about what happens to the physical body.
  • Let little dude know it’s OK to show feelings.
  • Show him your own feelings.
  • Offer other ways to show his feelings (drawing, play, creative activities).
  • Reassure him frequently that he is not responsible for their deaths.
  • Help him find ways to express his anger.

Grief is not a quick process. Little dude will feel this loss throughout his life, and his feelings will change along with his intellectual and emotional development. Keep giving him space to talk and feel and express what he’s experiencing.

Encourage him to continue the things he enjoyed before. Maintaining his routines with friends, other relatives, pets, and activities will be very comforting. Even after the death of a parent, it’s important for children to keep being children. Summer day camp is a good idea — as long as you’re not forcing him to participate. If you live close to where the family home was, and can find a familiar place, all the better.

Finally, this is a good time to reach out to a grief counselor for support. If there’s a children’s hospital in your community, they will have a list of resources. An experienced set of eyes and ears can make a big difference to all three of you.

Bless you!

~ The Mamas

How Children Grieve: an information-packed pamphlet that offers instruction on how to explain death to children.

Comfort Zone Camp:

Provides online grief resources, information about free bereavement camps for children ages 7 to 17 and support groups for adults and children ages 5 and up.

National Alliance for Grieving Children:

Offers a national listing of programs for grieving children, teens and their families.


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Ellen and Rachel are two old friends and “expert” mamas—one a pediatrician and one a family therapist—with fifty years of parenting experience between them.

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