Joe Primo has spent his career helping kids through the grieving process. He’s the CEO of Good Grief, a New Jersey–based nonprofit that provides support to children, teens, and young adults after the death of a family member. Previously, he served as president of the National Alliance for Grieving Children and as a hospice chaplain. He’s also the author of What Do We Tell the Children? Talking to Kids About Death and Dying. Here he shares what he’s learned about supporting kids after loss.
Q: Is there any right way to break the news of a death to a child?
Be open and honest. As adults, we often fear that the death of a loved one will destroy kids or cast a black cloud over the rest of their lives. But kids can cope with death if they’re given the love and support they need in its aftermath. Kids need to explore their feelings, ask questions, and express themselves. We can help children make sense of what happened by discussing it truthfully and honestly. Children might not need to know every detail of what happened, but they do need direct answers to the questions they ask. Facts help children process and understand.
Q: What are some strategies to cope with particularly painful times like holidays or birthdays?
If the Fourth of July is your family’s holiday of all holidays, start talking about it in May. Ask each other, “What traditions do you want to keep? What do you want to do differently?” It’s important to acknowledge that some things will change after loss. There is nothing wrong with creating new traditions. Talking about these things early and openly helps everyone set expectations.
Q: What are some common manifestations of grief in children, and how can they cope with each?
Kids often get bellyaches and headaches. Some have trouble concentrating in school or become disruptive. As long as kids aren’t hurting themselves, most responses are fine. We live in a culture that wants to fix things or turn them back to normal. Resist that temptation. Grief is not just an emotion. It is an intellectual, physical, and spiritual response that helps us adapt to a new reality. When kids don’t have opportunities to express their grief, they suffer. Activities like journaling, playing sports, spending time in nature, creating art, and spending time with friends can help them express their grief.
Q: It can be hard to talk to children about death. What can we do to "kick the elephant out of the room"?
There is a cultural narrative that tells us that bad things don’t happen to good people. As a result, we spend a lot of time protecting kids from natural life events, like death. Instead, talk openly about death and look for teachable moments. Highlight the cycle of life found in nature, pointing out how plants die when seasons change. Acknowledge deaths in Disney movies, and talk with your child about how it makes them feel. When a pet dies, mark the moment and discuss what happened. Don’t flush the dead goldfish before talking about what it means for it to be dead versus living. Discussing our mortality with children helps them become more comfortable with death and place more value on life.
Q: What does Option B mean to you?
I think Option B is all about adaptation. It can be hard for folks who don’t like change. But sometimes life forces us to change, and we have to choose Option B. We can resist it, or we can find meaning and purpose in it. In the end, those are our only choices.