Helping Grieving Children

A young girl places her hand on a memorial wall, remembering a loved one.

Helping a Grieving Child

Ways to help a child deal with grief after a loved one dies:

  • Allow expression of all feelings.
  • Understand the child’s losses and factors that inhibit grieving.
  • Recognize that lectures are not helpful.
  • Adult/caregiver should meet the child’s needs for affection and security; assure him that he is loved.
  • Set boundaries.
  • Listen.
  • Be patient in your helping and be accepting of differences in grieving.
  • Try not to attempt to “fix” everything.
  • Allow attendance and if possible, participation in rituals of death.
  • Allow children to engage in play. Encourage them to draw and to tell stories. Read stories to young children that deal with death and loss.
  • Work with the child’s teacher and school counselors to help the child in the school environment with their schoolwork and peer situations relating to the death.
  • Adults and caregivers need to grieve in front of children. Explain also tears, fatigue, irritability, etc.
  • Allow opportunities for remembering, memorializing.
  • Praise children for their courage to grieve and promote a sense of hope.
  • Seek help from outside sources-support groups, community resources (church or synagogue), caring friends, family, and counseling, if warranted.

Understanding Children Who Grieve

With the death of a loved one, children experience the following losses:

  1. Loss of the physical presence of the deceased
    • Children struggle to adjust to a life without the physical presence of the deceased in their lives.
  2. Loss of self
    • Identity: the child has to rethink his/her role as a child or sibling in the family.
    • Self confidence: children often feel shame, embarrassment as being different from other children and may have a lessened sense of self esteem.
    • Health: many children experience the physical symptoms of mourning.
    • Tiredness, lack of energy.
    • Difficulty in sleeping, or prolonged sleeping.
    • Lack of appetite, or excessive appetite.
    • Tightness in throat.
    • Shortness of breath.
    • General nervousness.
    • Headaches.
    • Stomach pain.
    • Loss of muscular strength.
    • Skin rashes.
    • Personality: the child “just doesn’t feel like his/her old self”.
  3. Loss of safety and security
    • Emotional security: children experience an emotional upheaval.
    • Physical security: children may worry who will take care of their physical needs.
    • Fiscal security: children worry about the family’s finances.
    • Lifestyle: the family may not feel the same with the absence of the loved one — for example the person who died may have been more fun loving, affectionate, or boisterous and now the family life is now quieter/different.
  4. Loss of meaning
    • Goals and dreams: the dreams for the future can be shattered and goals can seem to be unreachable without the support or presence of the person who died.
    • Faith: children often question their faith following a death.
    • Will/desire to live: children may search for meaning in living — “Why go on?”
    • Joy: many children lose the sense of joy in their lives — happiness seems elusive.

Children teach us more about their grief through their behavior than their words.

Factors that inhibit childhood mourning:

  • Parent/guardian in child’s life is unable or unwilling to mourn.
  • Conflicted relationship with the deceased.
  • Child’s desire to protect the adult(s) in his life.
  • Family rules related to expressing grief … i.e. not talking about the deceased, or death in general, or about feelings.
  • Lack of feelings is reinforced.
  • Lack of understanding about the nature of death- for example, referring to the deceased as being “gone” or “sleeping” leaving the child not understanding that death is the cessation of life and that it is not temporary.
  • No participation in the rituals of death (funeral, visitations, memorial services, burial).
  • Bereavement overload.
  • Forced (by self or others) of “hypermaturity”.
  • Intentional “busyness” to inhibit time to grieve.
  • People in child’s life who minimize the child’s right to mourn, — “you shouldn’t feel that way” or “don’t cry”.