Many children will experience the death of a parent, sibling or other close person in their life before the age of 18. Grief, the emotional pain and distress one experiences after a loved one’s death, is one of the most common disruptive experiences in childhood.
How Grief Varies Based on Age
Grief responses can look different across development. Here are some common grief reactions ranging from preschoolers to young adults:
- Infants: Increased clinginess, sleep and wake more frequently, more crying, hyper/energetic
- Preschoolers: Irritability, developmental regressions (e.g., bed-wetting, thumb-sucking, baby talk), acting out, fear of separation, increased nightmares, showing little to no concern and quickly returning to play when talking about death
- School-aged children: Anxiety, denial, guilt, withdrawal, anger, drop in grades, difficulties paying attention, fear of own death, changes in sleep, physical symptoms (e.g., stomachaches, headaches)
- Adolescents/ young adults: Many similarities to school-aged children with addition of risk-taking, increase in peer and family conflict, ongoing search for spirituality, pressure to take on more responsibilities
Supporting Grieving Children
It is important that bereaved children feel safe, loved, and supported. Below are some tips for parents/caregivers to best support children who are grieving:
- Maintain routines and continue setting limits for behaviors. Many children lose a sense of control when their loved one dies. By maintaining routines and setting limits for behavior, children are given a sense of normalcy and control in a world that may no longer make sense.
- Facilitate open and honest discussions with your child about death and grief. It is important to use simple, clear and honest language with the child.
BETTER RATHER THAN dead
body stopped working
gone to sleep
taken to a better place
- Normalize and validate all emotions. It is OK to feel a range of emotions when grieving including sadness, frustration, anger, relief, etc. Assure your child that we often feel more than one emotion, even when they are conflicting. For example, your child can feel angry his father died from a serious illness but relieved he is no longer in pain. Some children are afraid to feel happiness when grieving as they feel they should always be in pain. Let your child know it is okay to experience joy even while sad.
- Model healthy grieving. You should feel comfortable expressing some of your sadness, anger, and other emotions in front of your child. By modeling healthy grieving, you are giving the child permission to express his or her emotions and thoughts around you. Children benefit from role models on how to cope with grief and may appreciate opportunities to engage in coping strategies (e.g., taking a walk, drawing, listening to music) alongside their loved ones who are similarly grieving. When children do not see their parents/caregivers grieve, they may feel guilty for the emotions they are experiencing or feel as if these emotions may be a burden to those who are already hurting and thus may withhold from expressing them.
- Talk to your child about common myths of grief. Many myths about grief exist that can sometimes complicate a child’s coping with grief. Remind your child that not all deaths/losses are the same; there is no timeline to follow; everyone grieves differently; and grief is not linear and will ebb and flow over time.
- Give your child the choice on whether they would like to participate in funeral and memorial services. Help children feel empowered by offering them the choice to attend the memorial. Sometimes, caregivers/parents fear attending the memorial will be more harmful than helpful, but many children find it beneficial for closure. If the child decides to attend the memorial, help them prepare by educating them on where the service will take place, who will be there, what the casket will look like (e.g., open vs. closed), and how people may respond and interact with the child at service.
- Collaborate with teachers when the bereaved child returns to school. Going back to school after experiencing a close death can be challenging. Parents/caregivers can help promote the child’s adjustment back to school by asking the child what he or she would like shared with teachers/classmates, making a difficult day safety plan, planning drop-off and pick-up routines, and providing anticipatory guidance on how to handle potential changes in friends’/classmates’ behavior (e.g., unsure how to comfort child who is grieving).
- Share memories, create rituals, and find ways for the child to continue his or her bond with the deceased loved one. An important part of grief is continuing ties to loved ones. Even though the person is no longer physically present, continuing bonds with them allows the child to still feel connected to their loved one. This may look like sharing your favorite memories about the loved one, looking at scrapbooks, wearing their clothing item, carrying their picture, celebrating their birthday, eating their favorite meal or including them in annual holiday traditions.
- Monitor how your child’s grief is impacting their functioning. While it is normal to feel a range of emotions following a loved one’s death, some children may experience prolonged or complicated grief. If you suspect your child is experiencing prolonged grief (symptoms 1 year following loved one’s death), reaching out for professional support may be helpful. Symptoms of prolonged grief include:
- avoiding reminders of the person who has died
- loss of identity
- troubles accepting the loss
- feeling life is meaningless
- Inability to return to everyday activities
Grief is a challenging and complex emotion for children. Despite the difficult emotions associated with grief, this emotional pain is a sign of how much the child loved their family member and/or friend, and this can always be a helpful reminder when the child is feeling overwhelmed by their grief.