Children and Grief

Assisting Grieving Children
Children must not be forgotten in a time of grief. When a child has lost a loved one, they also experience grief. Just as not all adults grieve the same, not all children grieve the same.

For younger children especially, the concept of someone gone forever is very difficult. This concept is difficult to understand. For older children, they may understand that their loved one is gone, but they still may have some problems or questions.

Schroeder and Gordon (1996) suggest the following ways to assist grieving children:
  • Regardless of age, children can be told of a death in a statement that includes the following information - the person has died, this is sad and it is okay for them to talk about it; they died because something happened to their body (for younger children explain dead as the body stopped working); and it is okay for them to ask questions about death; caregivers should be honest in answering any questions.
  • Children should be told right away, told what to expect in the following days, for example, the funeral taking place, who is going to be taking care of them, etc.
  • Children should be allowed to attend the funeral, however, they should not be forced to attend; ask them what they want to do and explain to them what will happen and what they can expect.
  • Avoid terms such as gone away, passed on or left us because they can be misinterpreted; explain death as the body no longer working.
  • Encourage children to say goodbye to the loved one, like writing a letter, drawing a picture, placing flowers on the grave, etc.
  • Children often misread parents' expressions of emotion so they should be explained (for example, children believing their parents are crying because of them instead of knowing they are crying because they miss the loved one).
  • If parents are unable to provide for a child's needs because of their own grief, another adult should take care of the child until the parents are better able to function.
  • Be aware that young children's reactions to death may be different from adults because they focus on grief for a shorter period of time; they may play or laugh as a way to cope, or act out death scenes to express their feelings; this behavior is completely normal for a grieving child.
  • It is important to continue to talk about the loved one and recall positive memories of them.
  • Return children to their normal routine as soon as possible after the death, such as returning to school or daycare within a few days to show that life continues on; a teacher or caregiver should be informed so they can assist the child if he or she becomes upset.
  • A change to rules and expectations that occur during a time of family stress can cause a child to feel insecure or unsettled; this means that expectations of appropriate behavior must be maintained, for example: even though they are upset, it is not okay to fight with their siblings.
  • Following a death, children may worry about what will happen to them if their parents die so it must be explained it is not likely, but if it were to happen, they would be taken care of.