Helping Your Child Cope with Grief

Children react in dramatic and intensely painful ways to the death of a loved one, yet they may show their grief only intermittently. One reason for this is that children do not have the vocabulary necessary to express their grief. Even older children find it difficult to verbalize their painful and often confusing thoughts and feelings. A child is more likely to respond to grief by:

  • expressing fears for personal survival ("What is going to happen to me? What if something happens to you?)
  • demonstrating separation anxiety
  • having problems with bedtime, school departure, a parent's work departure
  • exhibiting problems with social skills
  • having difficulty making friends
  • finding it difficult to trust new caregivers
  • being angry, overactive, or aggressive
  • expressing intense feelings such as sadness, guilt, shame, pessimism, hopefulness, despair
  • demonstrating control issues
  • refusing to follow a normal plan for going to bed, doing homework, or eating
  • slowing down in maturation, or even regressing in some behaviors
  • losing self-esteem
  • refusing to try new things or to take on new tasks at school

Perhaps the greatest factor influencing a child's ability to understand and cope with the loss of a loved one is age. It is helpful to consider some of the differences among age groups.

Ages 2-4

If a child has had a previous experience that helped him or her to understand the concept of death, then his or her ability to cope is significantly enhanced. Even preschool children realize that a dead goldfish no longer swims and a lifeless bird no longer flies. Until the age of five, however, children do not understand the finality of death. Questions such as "vVhen is Daddy coming back?" indicate that a child considers the situation to be temporary or reversible. At this age, a child's distress can also result in an increased number of illnesses, such as colds and ear infections.

Ages 5-8

Children aged five to eight oftern see death as a separate creature, such as a monster or a demon. They understand the finality of death, but they may believe that death can be avoided, outrun, or outsmarted. Because a child this age has a developmental tendency to shut out his or her feelings and lacks the skills to deal with the intensity of those feelings, the child may use denial as a means of coping-which adults often perceive as a nonchalant or "so what?" attitude. Hyperactivity is another form of denial chil­dren use to avoid thinking about what has happened.

Early in this age range, children may assume that all events occur in response to their personal behav­ior. A child may believe that the deceased has delib­erately chosen to go away because the child was bad, and that if he or she acts "super good," the loved one will return.

Regression is also common for children this age. Previously self-directed children may have trouble being alone and may need constant playmates. Other children may begin to whine like preschool­ers; ding to mementos, such as clothing, letters, and pictures; or have nightmares, high anxiety, or psychosomatic symptoms, such as tummy aches and exaggerated reactions to injuries. Adults are often impatient with a child's regression. The truth is that if a child is allowed to fall back to more familiar, simple ground until he or she can regain emotional balance, it is possible for the child to emerge stronger and more confident than before.

Ages 9 and Up

Children aged nine and up see death as final and inevitable. They worry about their own survival and that of other loved ones. Because they think con­cretely, they often misinterpret or misunderstand adults' comments, such as "You are the man of the house now," or "Be strong for your mother." Like younger children, a child this age also may believe that the lost loved one left deliberately; but they will tend to blame the surviving parent for not pre­venting it.

As a means of coping with guilt, anger, and depression, children of this age may distract them­selves with equally intense involvement in sports, socializing (such as prolonged telephone conversa­tions), or becoming absorbed in music (with head­phones on to "tune out" everything and everyone). Food can also become an important means of find­ing comfort, as the child confuses feelings of empti­ness or loneliness with feelings of hunger.

All Ages

Children of all ages commonly experience difficul­ties with learning and schoolwork after the loss of a loved one. Parents and teachers need to recognize the persistent effect that grieving has on a child's learning, which can last well into the second year after the loved one's death. In addition to whatever tutorial help may be needed, patience and under­standing will go a long way toward helping a child handle temporary learning difficulties.

Regardless of the difficulties children may experi­ence after loss, all children need adults to help them grieve by understanding, acknowledging, and vali­dating their experience.

Suggested First Steps


Education simply means teaching children that a major loss produces intense feelings that must be expressed. Letting children know that there are car­ing adults who want to talk about these feelings when the children are ready often gives them the permission and confidence they need to open up.

Family sharing, in particular, can be extremely effective. When the whole family talks together, a child learns not only about his or her own grief expe­rience but also about those of other family members. Here are some suggestions:

  • Select age-appropriate books you can read together. Include books about loss and books that help children understand their feelings.
  • Encourage everyone to share his or her thoughts and feelings. Tell a child that it will take some time before he or she feels better, but that these feelings will not last forever.
  • Make a point to explain that "noting you thought or did caused Daddy (or Mommy or Grandmother) to die." Use clear language, saying that the person died rather than using the word sleep or the phrase passed away, which can be confusing or frightening to young children.
  • Review practical adjustments that will affect a child's life, such as changes in routines, activities, and schedules.


Permission means that whenever a child tries to share his or her anger, guilt, sadness, or shame in verbal or physical ways, you do not ask the child to postpone, deny, or cover up these feelings. When a child opens up, stop whatever you are doing, get physically close, and try not to fall apart yourself. Use uncritical, matter-of-fact listening, without demonstrating shock or offering any kind of correc­tion, but give yourself permission to show your sad­ness too.

Permission also means involving a child in rituals of family mourning, such as being present during family visitation, attending the funeral, visiting the cemetery, and offering spontaneous remembrances. Children over the age of four should be included in the funeral, or at least some part of it; however, the child will need a designated caregiver who is not intensely mourning and may leave with the child if he or she becomes overwhelmed at any time. Prepare the child well in advance for what he or she will see and hear at the funeral.


Support is the continued presence, over time, of caring adults who are affectionate, honest, and emotionally available to a child for as long as needed. Grieving children need supportive relation­ships with both men and women. Older children can make these surrogate choices for themselves, but younger children need concerned adults to make provisions for them.

One of the most basic ways to provide support for a grieving child is to review each day's routine so that he or she knows what to expect. Anticipate and cope with separation anxiety by being reliable and predictable in your returns. Reassure a younger child by giving him or her a personal item for which the child knows you will return. An older child will benefit from having his or her own watch. Regardless of age, encourage the child to ask for whatever he or she needs (e.g., "I need an extra hug").

Because grieving is physically exhausting, the child's rest should be a priority. Plan for an earlier bedtime; and if separation anxiety is interfering with sleep, use soft, cuddly blankets and softly-playing music to make bedtime warm and inviting.

Nourishment is another important consideration. Avoid control struggles over food by being flexible at mealtimes. During this difficult period, rely on the child's favorite foods supplemented with vita­mins to provide basic nutritional needs.

If grieving interferes with parenting, extended family members and friends who are not as emotion­ally devastated by the loss are critically important to the child. Their remembrances of the deceased can help strengthen positive memories and build an understanding of who the loved one was, as well as how much the child was loved (e.g., "I remember how proud your mom was when..."). Children up to the age of twelve will need things such as pic­tures, scrapbooks, videos, and calendars to anchor and reinforce their own memories. If possible, every grieving child should have a picture of himself or herself with the deceased to help remind the child of their special relationship.

Support also means recognizing that children may postpone their grieving until it feels "safe." What constitutes "safe" for a child may include waiting until the surviving parent is functioning again, until home life settles down, or until there is another sta­ble relationship that makes the child feel secure enough to express his or her feelings.

Finally, it is important to teach children that they will re-grieve losses as they mature. New experiences, such as the first time a child plays ball in the backyard without Dad, will cause the child to re­-experience the reality of the loss.

What to Do If This Isn't Working

  • Find as many ways as possible to help the child feel more secure.
  • Anticipate and plan ahead for upcoming anniver­saries such as the child's and the deceased's birthdays and the day of the death.
  • Discuss basic feelings and use face drawings and/or mimicry to help the child identify and express each emotion. Bring out a child's angry feelings by playing games, such as the "It's not fair that-" game.
  • Find physical ways for the child to express him­self or herself, such as dancing, playing sports, or using clay or paints.
  • Talk with the child about what he or she can do to reassure himself whenever necessary, such as repeating certain phrases in his or her mind or telling specific people that he or she needs help.
  • Review with new teachers and other significant adults what has happened in the child's life, so that they too can be supportive.

When to Seek Help

Remember that all children have difficulties after the death of a loved one or another major loss, but in some instances professional help may be needed

  • if the child is consistently having problems, experiencing pain, or acting withdrawn (vs. periodic episodes);
  • if symptoms get worse rather than better over time;
  • if there is a sudden or dramatic change in the child's behavior;
  • if a parent feels he or she cannot cope. (Note: Parents must have a way to take care of their own grieving before they can guide children in their grieving.)
  • if there are extremes in the child's behavior, such as the absence of sadness, severe depression, con­tinuous acting out, or overly responsible behavior.

A pastor or family ministries professional will be able to provide recommendations regarding therapists or counselors, support groups, and other resources for grieving children and families.

The Faith Perspective

Psalm 18:1-3, 6

I love you, O LORD, my strength.
The LORD is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
  my God, my rock in whom I take refuge,
  my shield, and the horn of my salvation,
      my stronghold .
In my distress I called upon the LORD;
  to my God I cried for help.
From his temple he heard my voice,
and my cry to him reached his ears. (NRSV)

Children in grief often need reassurance and signs of stability. Even though the physical presence of the family member is gone, the love and memories of the child will continue. Concrete symbols of the lasting love may be appealing, particularly to young children. Have the child select a symbol, such as a rock as in Psalm 18, that will remind the child not only of the family member but also of God's love and the love of the church community that will never go away. Have the child place the symbol in a special location like the mantle or dinner table as a constant reminder.

Recommended Resources

For reading with children
Badger's Parting Gifts, by Susan Varley, (Mulberry books, 1992).
Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children, by Bryan Mellonie (Bantam Books, 1987).
The Cherry Blossom Tree: A Grandfather Talks about Life and Death, by Jan Godfrey and Jane Cope (Augsburg, 1996).
Waterbugs and Dragonflies: Explaining Death to Young Children, by Doris Stickney (Pilgrim Press, 1997).
When Someone You Love Dies: An Explanation of Death for Children, by Robert V. Dodd (Abingdon Press, 1986).

For Adults
Helping Children Cope with the Loss of a Loved One: A Guide for Grownups, by William C. Kroen, Ph.D. (Free Spirit Publishing, 1996).

This was originally published by the same title in the FaithParent Series by Abingdon Press ©1999.

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