Understanding Childhood Grief

The death of a family member, friend, or other person can be a lifelong experience for children. It is normal for children to miss the person who died and to experience grief that may come and go with different levels of intensity. There is no timeline for grief and grief experiences are unique to every individual. It can be challenging for caregivers and support people to know what to do, what to say, or how best to help a child who is grieving.

This resource provides some suggestions, based on research and practice among childhood bereavement professionals, about how to be helpful to a child who is grieving a death. It is important to note grief reactions in children are varied, wide-ranging, and individual to each child. We encourage you to use this resource as a guide while you provide understanding and support to a child who is grieving.

Grief is a normal reaction for children to the death of someone significant. Whatever the relationship or circumstances around the death, children will grieve the death of someone significant to them. The absence of a person can take time to fully accept and even then, children may continue to miss them in their own way. Grief is not a problem we are trying to fix for a child; it is an experience they are living. Mood changes or feelings of grief, even several years out, are a common part of grieving the loss of their person. Children need adults to be patient with them as they grieve.

Children need to know the truth. While our instinct may be to not share details of the death, it is important for children to know the truth in an age-appropriate way. Quite often caregivers will avoid words such as “dead” or “die,” or avoid the truth of how a person died in a desire to protect children. Unfortunately, in doing so, caregivers can often create additional challenges or confusion for the child. Honest answers build trust. Although it may be difficult, it is important to share the truth about how someone died, to help provide understanding and allow children to feel comfortable approaching us with questions because they know they can trust us to tell them the truth. Children know more than we think they do, and by not telling the truth, we risk leaving children to process complicated information on their own, rather than with caring adults in their lives. As the child ages, more details may become appropriate to share with them.

Each child’s grief is unique. The way children experience and express their grief will vary for each child. Some children can benefit from talking about the person who died and their feelings about it. Other children might not talk about their person at all; and others might express their grief through art, play, music or writing. In whatever way children may experience and respond to their grief, these expressions can be indicators of if they are adapting and adjusting to life without the physical presence of their person. It is important not to assume what children might be feeling about a person’s death. Reactions can vary from sadness, anger, fear, guilt, or relief. It is important to listen to children, meet them on their terms, and come to understand their unique grief reactions.

Children who are grieving often feel alone and misunderstood. Many well-meaning adults avoid talking about the deceased person in fear that doing so may upset the child. In doing so, children might feel as though talking about or even expressing their grief is not acceptable. It is helpful to children when the adults in their lives provide opportunities to acknowledge the grief everyone is feeling. It is also helpful when children are able to gather with peers grieving similar situations. When children feel understood by family and friends and when they have the opportunity to express their grief in their own way, they may feel less alone and, in turn, feel supported in their grief.

Children will experience grief over the death of significant people at different times throughout their lives. Children will often experience grief during significant milestones. Grief has no time limit. Allowing children to share openly about feelings can help to normalize this experience and help them find ways to work through powerful feelings that will come and go throughout their lives.

Knowledge is Power. Many resources are available via the internet and in the form of grief support for your child. You can find additional resources and support programs near you at nacg.org/resources-and-support.

The key thing to remember is that we know children who are grieving do better when they have strong, supportive relationships with the adults in their lives. We must continue to show up in meaningful ways and listen to the expressed needs of the child who is grieving.

If you are concerned about when to seek additional support, please visit nacg.org/additional-support for more information and connection to additional resources.

Copyright © 2013 by National Alliance for Children’s Grief. All rights reserved. You can quote, link to, re-post, or translate this article in its entirety, as long as you include the author’s name and a working link back to this website: www.nacg.org.

Silverman, Phyllis R., Madelyn, Kelly
 (2009) A Parent’s Guide to Raising Grieving Children. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Worden, William J. (1996) Children and Grief: When a Parent Dies. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Schuurman, Donna (2003) Never the Same: Coming to Terms with the Death of a Parent. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
Emswiler, Mary Ann, Emswiler, James P. (2000) Guiding Your Child through Grief. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
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Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth (1969) On Death and Dying. New York, NY: Scribner.