Children & Grief

Children and adolescents face losses every day, and they grieve these losses. Of course, loved ones die—grandparents, parents, siblings, friends; so do beloved pets, often a child’s first experience with death. Other losses do not involve death but can generate grief, such as experiencing divorce or going to a new school. As children move into adolescence there are more subtle but important losses—loss of identity, loss of roles, loss of self-esteem.

Every child, just as every adult, will grieve in his or her own way. Children respond to grief as adults do—physically, emotionally, behaviorally, even spiritually. It may seem daunting to have to explain death to a child, especially when there are no simple answers.

The following guidelines may make this process easier.
What should I say? 

Consider a child’s age and ability to understand complex ideas. Many experts believe children do not have a mature understanding of death until about age 8 or 9. Younger children may think that being dead is temporary and that the dead person will return in the future.

It is okay to say you don’t know the answer to a child’s question. You can even say, “No one knows for sure, but this is what I think.” If the child asks whether you will die, respond that everybody dies someday, but that you hope to live to do things with the family for a long time.

Use precise terms when talking about death. People typically refer to “losing” a loved one. Children may interpret this literally and assume that the person can be found. You should also explain that being dead means that the body has stopped working and that it cannot be fixed. It no longer feels cold or gets hungry, and it does not feel any more hurt or pain.

Giving children information and choices when facing death and grief can be very helpful. Preparing children ahead of time for what they might encounter at the hospital or during the funeral can be very important. Once they have that information, let them make a choice. Perhaps they would like to go to the funeral, but would choose not to attend the service at the cemetery.

Remember that children cannot tolerate long periods of sadness. They may want to play and participate in their usual activities. This does not mean that they didn’t love the person who died, nor does it mean that they are being disrespectful. It is okay to permit or encourage children to have fun like they did before the death. Changes in the child’s behavior or patterns might be signs that the child is experiencing problems associated with the death. In these instances, it’s appropriate to obtain advice from a specialist in child bereavement counseling.

Ways to help grieving children

Bereavement groups may be an effective way for school-age children to process their grief by participating with other children who have suffered losses. Children don't want to be different from their peers; in a group, they discover they are not alone.

Art and other expressive approaches can be great ways to help children identify their feelings of grief. Activities might include painting a picture of the feeling; writing and drawing in a journal; reading books or watching movies that open up discussions of death and loss; making a list of what makes you angry, sad, afraid, frustrated, etc.

Children’s grief groups and camps

Many hospices offer support groups and camps specifically designed to help children and adolescents cope with grief. Some communities have a dedicated children’s grief center or organization. Participation with other bereaved peers, especially for adolescents, can make the grieving young person feel less isolated and alone.