Coping with Sudden Loss

My little beach community is in mourning.  It’s not my story to tell, so the details will remain confidential.  But a very healthy, happy, outgoing, ten year old girl who once sold lemonade and cookies to my daughter passed away unexpectedly last week.

Shock quickly spread through the community as the elementary school sent home information to the parents.

Our community responded immediately with meal schedules, donations, and flowers.  But it’s not enough.  How could it be?

Although we only knew these neighbors through lemonade stands and friendly hellos en route to the park near our home, our hearts are broken for this family.

This kind of loss is unimaginable.  This kind of pain lasts a lifetime.  This kind of tragedy should never occur.

As our community grieves for this little girl and her family and tries to help as much as possible, we also have to teach our children how to cope with such a sudden and unexpected loss.

Below are some tips to help children cope with the loss of a friend:

1.    Be honest, but brief:  Children struggle to understand such a great loss.  They will ask for clarification often.  It causes them to question their own safety.  Whether or not you know the details, offer honest but brief explanations.  Avoid words like “sick” or “illness” as kids are often sick and might fear their own health.  It’s ok to repeat the same answer over and over; they are looking for a consistent answer to make sense of the tragedy.

2.    Provide reassurance:  Grief is incredibly overwhelming for children, and often delayed.  It might even cause laughter instead of tears or other behavioral changes.  Reassure your child that you understand, that you are there to listen and keep him safe, and that these kinds of tragedies do not happen often.  Kids worry.  While you need to be honest with them, it’s also acceptable to reassure them that they are just fine right now.

3.    Show emotions:  Kids often react to overwhelming situations with opposite emotions.  The loss of a friend is very difficult to process and understand.  Share your feelings.  Cry when you need to cry.  Say that you feel sad, angry, confused, etc.  Teach your children that all feelings are ok as you attempt to cope with the loss.

4.    Send off a balloon:  Kids need tangible ways to say goodbye.  Have your child write a note to her friend, tie it to a helium balloon, and send it off into the sky.  This helps your child feel like she’s doing something for her friend.  Symbolism goes a long way with little kids.

5.    Have a child friendly celebration:  Funeral services are overwhelming for young children.  They are also long and it can be hard to sit still.  Consider organizing a child friendly celebration of life party where the kids engage in activities once enjoyed by their friend.  Have them share happy memories if they feel up to it.  Organize a craft to memorialize the child, such as garden stones.  It’s important to teach children that people live on in our memories even when they are no longer alive.

6.    Create a memory book:  Children often feel helpless when tragedy strikes.  They want to do something to help, but don’t know where to start.  Give children the opportunity to create a scrapbook page in memory of their friend.  Encourage them to include pictures, memories, and a share things they enjoyed doing with that friend.  Completed books can be given to the family cherish and look through when they feel up to it.

7.    Fundraising:  Families often set up memorial funds when lives are lost.  Encourage kids to raise money for memorial funds by holding lemonade stands, bake sales, car washes, etc.  Let them help.

8.    Hold them close:  There is no right way to explain or cope with this kind of loss.  Some kids will react immediately, others will experience delayed grief.  Some might not show any reaction at all.  Be there for them.  Be patient.  Be empathic.  And hold them close.  Young children need constant reassurance, especially when tragedy strikes.

Please join me in sending good thoughts and prayers to the family of this young girl, particularly her little sister, as they attempt to recover from this enormous loss.

About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)


  1. […] at times, but a sudden loss of someone important is one thing their emotions cannot handle. An article written by Katie tackles on that and here is how we – parents, friends and close relatives can help them cope […]