Children & Grief: What You Need to Know

Dealing With Grief

Children & Grief: What You Need To Know


As a psychologist specializing in grief and loss, I know a thing or two about children and grief. But as a sister, daughter, and mother, I know even more. I was raised in a grief-stricken family after my youngest sister, McLean, then age 8, died of cancer. I was the oldest and 18 years at the time. My other siblings were 17, 13, 11, and 9. My parents were devastated and dealing with their own grief; the loss of my sister changed our family forever.


Then, in 2007, my sister, Shannon, and brother-in-law, Rob, both died and we inherited our two nephews. I learned about children and grief in a whole new way as I was challenged with mothering our two “new” sons and my 4 other children through their grief while simultaneously dealing with my own.


What I Know about Children & Grief

Yes, I know a few things about children and grief. I know that:

1)   Children of all ages experience grief.

2)   Children tend to grieve differently than adults.

3)   Children “grow up” with grief, revisiting it at each developmental stage, understanding it in new ways the older they become.

4)   Children can be forgotten in their grief, especially when surviving parents, siblings or grandparents are grieving too.

 But I also know that adults who learn about and help children deal with grief can make a huge difference in that child’s life. In fact, the more we seek to understand children’s grief and the different methods for treating grief in children, the better the odds that our children will not only get through their grief, but that family relationships can be strengthened through the process too.


What You Need To Know About Children & Grief

 Children & Loss

First, it’s important to understand a little bit about children and loss. Though the majority of children don’t experience severe losses while young, loss in childhood is common and includes the following (in order, starting with the most likely to occur):

  • Death of a pet
  • Death of a grandparent
  • A major move
  • Divorce of the child’s parents
  • Death of a parent(s)
  • Death of a playmate, friend, or relative
  • Debilitating injury to the child or someone important in the child’s life[1]

Hidden losses are also common in childhood, such as: Loss of Trust, Loss of Safety, or Loss of Control. For example, when parents divorce, the child not only experiences the physical loss of having her family “together,” but perhaps an even bigger loss for the child might be her loss of a sense of safety and control. Any loss, obvious or hidden, can produce a grief response in children; it is therefore important for adults to learn about these things in order to help children identify and address their losses and understand how to deal with their grief.

In addition, it’s important for adults/caregivers to understand the following:

1) Children of all ages experience grief.

Though in the past it might have been argued that a child needs to be able comprehend death and loss in order to experience grief, we now know that’s just not true. In fact, now we know that even very young children will experience grief when they lose someone very near and dear to them, especially a caregiver. Infants may become inconsolable or colicky, toddlers may have trouble sleeping or behavioral distress, and preschoolers may talk incessantly about the deceased, fully believing their loved one will return. Young children will especially be affected if their caregiver is grieving, picking up on their parent’s distress and feeling it themselves. Yes, no matter how young the child, if she is old enough to love, she is old enough to experience grief.


2) Children Grieve Differently Than Adults

There are over 100 acknowledged grief symptoms, and most people (children and adults) experience their own unique symptoms of grief. However, the pattern of grief in adults tends to be more of a sustained emotional experience than is for kids. Children’s grief symptoms can include intense feelings, but they tend to “come and go,” with periods of intense grief symptoms followed by periods of apparent happiness and well-being, often all within the same day.

Children’s Grief Symptoms

A child may manifest symptoms that seem similar to common “adult” symptoms of grief, like: crying, lethargy, sadness, bargaining, anxiety, anger, and even numbness or denial. Eating and sleeping changes are also common in grieving children. Often, however, grief will show up in other, more “subtle” ways. Learning and attentional issues may arise, and their performance in school or activities may suffer. Behavioral issues like irritability, arguing, and fighting can be common for some. Others will withdraw, disengaging from friends, family, or activities they used to enjoy. Children are also likely to experience a roller-coaster of emotional “highs” and “lows,” and may not be sure how to handle what they feel.


3) Children tend to “grow up” with grief, revisiting it as the brain develops.

As the brain develops and matures, comprehension of death and loss increases. This is why grief can feel like it randomly “comes and goes” with kids. Their younger brains can be “protective” in times of loss, helping them move on easier than adults who fully comprehend the finality of death. However, “mourning for a childhood loss can be revived at many points in life, especially when important life events reactivate the loss.” [2]  Times of stress (school, friends, or family stress) can bring out grief symptoms and reactions. The teenage years are another vulnerable time for experiencing grief, as abstract thinking develops and hormones hit. And some may experience only minor grief symptoms in childhood, but won’t experience major grief symptoms until they are adults and they can fully comprehend the loss. The important thing is to recognize that, no matter how or when it happens, grief will eventually hit and will need to be experienced in order to heal.


4) Children can be forgotten in their grief, especially when surviving parents, siblings or grandparents are grieving too.

Grieving parents may not be able to help their children through grief. Often, when a child dies, the surviving siblings are left to cope on their own, feeling lonely and afraid. Parents don’t intend to forget their children’s grief, but it does happen often. Also, well-meaning, attentive adults might see a grieving child playing or laughing and make the mistake of thinking they are “fine” or “over” their grief. This can have an impact on the type and amount of help and support a grieving child receives. It is therefore important to involve as many adults with the child as is helpful and necessary to get his or her needs met. School teachers, church leaders, friends, and extended family members can all play the role of watching the child for grief symptoms, providing support and encouragement, and loving the child through this difficult time.


The important point is that the more we understand about children and grief, the better we can help them heal. Take the time to learn all you can about children, loss & grief, and what you can do to help. Then, be with the child and just love them through their grief. Ever observing and ready to provide support when it’s needed, you can make all the difference.


Related Articles:

Children & Grief: What You Can Do

Dealing with Grief

The 5 Stages of Grief

“How do I Grieve?”: Grief Work & TEARS

Grief & The Family

Understanding & Coping with Loss and Trauma

The Do’s & Don’ts of Helping Others Through Grief



Children’s Grief Education Association

Hello Grief!: Online grief support


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[1] James, J.W., Friedman, R. & Matthews, L.L.  (2001).  When Children Grieve:  For adults to help children deal with death, divorce, pet loss, moving and other losses.  New York, NY:  Quill.

[2] Worden, W. (2001). Children and Grief: When a parent dies. Guilford Press: New York, NY.