In Spare, Prince Harry opens up about losing his mother when he was 12 years old. Every child responds to grief in a unique way, but there are some general best practices to support children who are grieving.
26 years after his mother’s death, Prince Harry still vividly recalls the words used to tell him about his mother’s accident. “Mummy’s been in a car crash…complications…badly injured…I’m afraid she didn’t make it.” Overall, this was a good explanation of what happened. It was short and simple. It gave detail appropriate for a 12-year-old child. Yet, one extremely important word was left out. Dead. At no point during the conversation was Prince Harry explicitly told that his mother had died. Terms such as “passed away” or “no longer with us” or “didn’t make it” are an attempt to protect the child (or the person telling the child), but this vague terminology can be harmful, and easily be misconstrued, especially by a child.
Another common mistake after the death of a loved one is sharing implicit or explicit information with a child about how to grieve. Additionally, it is a mistake to give the child no choices regarding their role in the rituals surrounding the family member’s death. Prince Harry shared that he was expected to maintain appearances after his mother’s death – to show no emotion, to go out and meet the people, and to actively participate in the pomp and circumstance of the state funeral. He recounts discussions between members of the royal family about walking in the funeral procession but was never asked if this was something he wanted to do.
The death of a loved one leaves a child feeling powerless and giving them choices is an opportunity to re-establish a sense of control or power. The choices can be simple as asking a child what they would like to wear or as complex as asking a child about their desired role in the funeral. Telling children to act a certain way or to participate in ways that make them uncomfortable invalidates their feelings and sends the message that there is a right way to grieve.
One of the most striking parts of Prince Harry’s book was the description of expectations placed on him about how he should act after his mother died. His reactions of anger and numbness were completely normal. Yet, he recounts that “the ethos” of the family, that crying wasn’t an option – ever,” a very clear message that there was a right way and a wrong way to grieve. Crying was not the right way.
All children grieve differently. Some may cry openly, others may not cry at all. There are children who seem very angry while others seem more fearful or show no outward reaction at all. But societal expectations about grief are passed on to children when statements are made that tell them to be strong for the family or questions arise about why they are not crying. These types of sentiments are not helpful. Instead, children who are grieving should be told frequently that any thoughts and feelings are okay. Adults should make room for children to share their feelings without trying to fix, correct, or minimize the emotions. Just listen. If words become necessary, reflect back with a statement like: It sounds like you are angry your mom died. I’m angry too.”
As a clinical psychologist who has specialized in pediatric oncology and palliative care, I’ve advised countless families. But it wasn’t until I had to follow my own advice with my child that I realized how excruciating it can be to correctly address grief.
The first concrete strategy is planning in advance how to tell the child. Write down what you want to say. Decide who else should be present and ask them to be ready to jump in if you are unable to continue the conversation.
Adults can also look for opportunities for the child to participate in the planning process. For my family, we asked our daughter if she would like to be in charge of choosing decorations for the Shiva. She chose a rainbow unicorn theme, and it was perfect.
On the day of the funeral, ask an adult who the child knows well to be their buddy. Make it clear that they and their buddy can leave the service at any time.
And finally, don’t hide your grief. My daughter sees me cry. She also sees me smile. We discuss how it is okay to feel sad and also okay to feel happy, sometimes at the same time.
While the experience Prince Harry describes seems very different from other children’s because most funerals are not televised and watched by millions of people around the world, I would argue that his lived experience – being told how to show or not show emotion, his lack of choices regarding his role in the funeral, and the expectations placed on him about how to grieve are unfortunately the norm in our society, yet rarely discussed.
Grief is unique to each child and family. But I do know how important it is to hold knowledge about grief and understand the best practices for supporting children who are grieving.