Thinking About the Best Ways to Comfort Grieving Kids? Think Again.

By Wendy Thomas Russell | April 4, 2013 | 8 comments

Grief-woman-on-casket-2Ten months ago, I wrote a blog called Heaven Doesn’t Help Us: Talking to Kids About Death. It’s all about how religious platitudes are useless when it comes to explaining death to young children. In fact, according to numerous child psychologists and grief experts I’d interviewed at the time, talk of heaven is rarely a comfort at all.

But what I failed to realize at the time — in fact, what I failed to realize until this week — is that this whole notion of comfort is part of the problem.

Russell Friedman, co-founder of the Grief Recovery Institute in Sherman Oakes, Calif., has spent 27 years counseling people in the midst of grief. Friedman talks a lot about the myths associated with death — some of which I’ll be addressing in the coming weeks — but one of the most fascinating myths is that it’s both good and helpful to comfort grieving people. To be sure, this is precisely why most parents feel compelled to tell their kids about heaven, right? Heaven seems to takes the edge off of death. Heaven gives them an alternative reality. Heaven makes them a little less, well, sad.

But sadness, says Friedman, is such a healthy emotion at times of devastating loss. It’s appropriate. It’s normal. And trying to remove the sadness — even trying to take the edge off! — from someone who is grieving is both unhealthy and inappropriate. To make his point, Friedman points to the emotion of happiness. Would we ever tell a loved one that they ought to feel less happy about a job offer because they might lose that job some day? Would we tell someone not feel so good about their engagement because 50 percent of marriages end in divorce? So why do we rush to relieve people of their sadness or discomfort when those feelings are normal and appropriate and healthy?

“Why,” Friedman asks, “is comfort the goal?”

I must admit, this small piece of insight is probably going to be a bit of a game-changer for me. I always seem to want to make people feel better. And I always feel proud when I’m able to do that. It has never occurred to me that in my quest to keep sadness at bay, I might be cutting off someone else’s rightful, natural grief. Or my own.

Unfortunately, none of this is academic, Friedman says. The real-world problem with cutting off grief — AND IT HAPPENS ALL THE TIME — is that the grief never ends.

And that may be the biggest loss of all.

Full Disclosure: This is the first of several blogs I’ll be writing about death and grief over the next several weeks. As the most universal problem humans face, it still amazes me that we know so little about how to discuss it, deal with it, and prepare our kids for it. I hope by the end, you’ll feel more informed, if not more capable. Be sure to let me know if you have specific questions or concerns you’d like addressed, and I’ll do my best to address them along the way.



  1. My friend lost her oldest son in January. She is blogging at and has 4 younger kids and is doing a great job dealing with all of this … she gets up every day for them and creates experiences for them even though they are also grieving. I’ll be back for your other posts!

  2. We’ve learned, unfortunately by experience, that sometimes just a simple acknowledgement, an “I’m sorry,” is a tremendous comfort in itself. My grandson, now 13, lost his 3 month old baby brother to the herpes virus, then his next baby brother was born at 27 weeks and the threat of death once again visited the child. Very soon, his great grandmother was killed, the his sister was born at 25 weeks. We had to watch, and endure, the pain my grandson was going through. He didn’t know how to process it, he still is….you’re right, it never ends.

  3. Renee says:

    I can totally related to Kimberly. My son just turned 5, and over the past year he has been very interested in death…by that I mean he’s had lots of questions – why, how, where? He was so excited to turn 5, but the night of his birthday he started sobbing and said that he changed his mind, he doesn’t want to be 5. When I asked why, he said because it means he’s close to being old and that you die when you’re old. My heart broke :( So we had a long talk, and I answered his questions honestly and age-appriately: Yes, you will die someday. Yes, mommy and daddy will die someday. When you die your memory and legacy will live on in those who loved you. Nothing was sugar-coated, no talk of heaven. But he “got it”. He still brings it up from time to time, I’m just glad that he’s comfortable talking to us about it!

  4. Kimberly B. says:

    We have been dealing with the issue of death lately, as my then-4-year-old realized that old people die, then that everyone gets old, then that she will die, and worst of all, that my husband and I will die. She spent several nights sobbing and clinging to me, looking so scared. And as much as I wanted to make her feel better, I knew I couldn’t. So I didn’t try to explain it away, nor did I try to change the subject. I remember feeling the same way as a child and I think it’s just something we all have to come to terms with. I held her and told her how much I loved her, that I felt scared of dying when I was kid, and that though she didn’t believe me, she would eventually feel better. It was one of the toughest things I’ve faced as a parent: wanting to make it go away, yet having no ability to do so. I’m really interested to see your posts about this topic.

    • Oh, I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I can’t think of a tougher thing than wanting to make a child’s pain go away and being powerless to do it. Whether that pain is emotional or physical or psychological. So glad you shared this — important for me to keep in mind these little faces, and the very real fear they’re feeling, as I’m writing… Thanks again, Kimberly.

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Due out March 31, Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious offers a well-researched look at a timely subject: secular parenting. With chapters on avoiding indoctrination, talking about death, vaccinating kids against intolerance, dealing with religious baggage, and getting along with religious relatives, the book offers a refreshingly compassionate approach to raising religiously literate, highly tolerant and critically thinking children capable of making up their own minds about what to believe. The book may be pre-ordered by visiting Brown Paper Press.

      Natural Wonderers is my new blog published by the Patheos faith network. An extension of my previous blog — Relax, It's Just God — Natural Wonderers offers stories and advice on raising curious, compassionate children in secular families.
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