Grief in Children: How Grief Affects Children [& How to Help]

Children grieve too. It just looks different from how adults grieve.

Grief affects children just like it does everyone. It is healthy for a child to mourn a death, be sad, and work through the grieving process.

Read on to find out how you can help your child or someone else’s child on this challenging journey.

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Grief in Children

We want to protect our children from the harshness of life. But there are some things that we can’t stop invading their territory. Regrettably, death is one of those realities that happen.

Children may not be able to articulate their feelings. Parents should be aware of their children’s grief. Be truthful to them. Especially concerning the death of their loved one. Learn to discern differences between normal grief and complicated grief in your child. (Those are two specific, recognized types of grief.)

How you explain death to children can help them start on the road to understanding and healing.

How does grief affect a child?

Grief does affect children differently than it affects adults. Most children are aware of death, even though they may not understand it. Death is played out in books, cartoons, and video games. So there is almost always a general level of awareness.

But experiencing death firsthand is much different. It can be scary and confusing, primarily once you have explained that there is no coming back, unlike cartoons and video games.

So, how does grief affect children? Consider the five stages of grief:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

Children go through many of these stages, just like everyone else. It just gets played out a little differently. For instance, denial. The child could simply ignore or not accept the reality that the person has died. Maybe they pretend they are gone away on vacation.

This is why it is so important for adults to speak truthfully to kids about death. The person has died; they have not gone out of town or to some magical fairy tale land. When you, as the grownup, avoid talking about death you reinforce the denial stage and keep the child there, unable to move forward in the grieving process.

The same idea goes for the other common stages (and bear in mind that there are more than five). Anger might manifest in extreme frustration at math homework or a toy breaking. Bargaining is certainly something kids do anyways, so they might find ways to argue with you about their loved one or about seemingly unrelated things like bedtime or what to have for a snack.

How this actually looks for each child and situation can vary widely. Familiarize yourself with the grieving process and look for warning signs (next) and ways to help (further down in this article).

Signs of grief in children

Children process the same emotions as adults, just in different ways. You might not even realize they are grieving, but they are. Kids aren’t too young to grieve.

Understanding death varies with age, and so does grieving. Pay attention to these signs and it will help you to see how your child is grieving.

  • Clinginess
  • Feeling abandoned
  • Developmental regression (crying or bedwetting)
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Anxiety
  • Changes in behavior or play
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Feelings of guilt

These signs or symptoms of grief are completely normal. Be there for them during this difficult time. Watch out for extreme versions of these common signs. Be ready and willing to talk (about grief or other subjects), spend quality time with the child, and seek help when you feel you need it.

How long is the grieving process for a child?

Just like any grieving process, there is no timeline. (But see this “grief timeline.”) Studies have shown that children can’t fully come to terms with grief until their mid-20’s. Grief is a process, and it can last a lifetime.

Related: What is Prolonged Grief?

When should children return to school after a death in the family?

The length of time off will depend much on the family situation and relationship with the person who died. Most schools will excuse absences for funeral-related travel, and if you talk to the attendance officer or guidance counselor they should approve some time off for grief.

But how long? That will vary. Use your judgment. Talk to your child, to a grief counselor, and to the school, especially the teacher.

The thought of returning to school after a death in the family can churn the feelings of any child. At any age, a child wants to fit in with his or her peers, but the emotional journey of grief can make them feel as if they don’t belong with the group.

So as you think about your child or children going back to school,

  • Give your child time. Grief is a process, and the loss of a loved one is a mark that a person will carry with them for the rest of their lives. It’s important to give the child the time they need to think, say, feel and express their emotions.
  • Be proactive. Don’t be afraid to sit down with your child and with their teachers or counselor to talk about the situation. As the weeks go by, pay attention to their schoolwork not only the grades, but (respectfully) the content. Seek the help of a professional counselor should the child be having a particularly difficult time.
  • Allow for privacy but no secrets. Grief is both communal and individual, public yet private. Allow your child space to grieve in their own private way, to be free from having to answer questions about it at school and so on. At the same time, secrecy, holding everything in, or “stuffing” their grief can cause anxiety and other issues. Aim for a healthy balance.

How to Help a Grieving Child

What are some ways to help a child who has lost a loved one?

1. Be honest with your child.

As hard as it may be, be honest about death. They need to hear the truth from someone they love and trust.

Use straightforward language. “Grandpa is not coming back. He is dead.”

2. Listen to what your child says.

Validate what your child is saying. They are trying to understand what has happened.

Let them ask questions. Don’t be afraid to tell them that you “don’t know” the answer. Saying that would give you the perfect opportunity to discover the answer together.

3. Take care of yourself.

It would help if you tried to keep your everyday routine, so that they can keep theirs. Eat healthy, exercise, and sleep well.

Children handle grief better if they have a healthy adult guiding them.

4. Provide a creative outlet for your child.

Give your child some freedom to draw, color, or even doing crafts.

They might want to draw what they are feeling, or perhaps the creative time will help them “forget” their sadness for awhile.

Ask them to explain their artwork to you. This is a good way for you to gauge how they are handling their grief. If you are concerned that your child is not coping well, seek professional help.

5. Share your stories.

Share your own stories of being scared or lonely. This will help them to understand these new and difficult feelings. Realizing that you have felt these emotions will make it more “normal.”

Telling your child how you dealt with the feelings will bring the two of you closer. Kids love to hear about their parent’s childhood.

6. Be consistent.

Things have changed with the loss of your loved one. Don’t let the routine or rules change. Children do better with boundaries. Boundaries make a child feel safe and loved.

Keep the daily schedule as close to “normal” as you can. There is still school, homework, mealtime, bath time, and bedtime. Kids are kids and may try to take advantage of their feelings. It is up to you to maintain the rules.

7. Maintain treasured family traditions, and create new ones.

Maybe Grandpa always put the Christmas Angel on top of the tree. Now you can hand down this tradition to someone else. Keeping – or updating – these simple rituals are essential and will give your child security that life still goes on.

Create a new tradition. Volunteer somewhere as a family. Make a special outing to commemorate your lost loved one.

8. Give your child reassurance.

Let your child know that your love for them hasn’t changed. Make sure they feel secure. A child’s sense of security will be shaken when a loved one dies.

Children often fear that someone else will die. Of course, you can’t promise that won’t happen. However, you can reassure them that “if” anything happens, they will always have someone to take care of them.

9. Talk about the person that has died.

Give your child permission to talk about their loved one. You can initiate the conversation. You might say, “Your mom loved the color pink.” or “Your daddy loved to hear you laugh!”

Being able to talk about their loved one will give them a great outlet. Sharing memories and hearing your stories will keep their loved ones close to them. The child needs to know that there is no shame in missing, loving, remembering, or talking about their loved one.

10. Hold a funeral or memorial service.

Holding a funeral or memorial service will allow your child to say “goodbye” in their way. The service will also let your child see how important their loved one was to other people.

Seeing other family members and the community come together to honor Grandma will let them know that it is okay to grieve.

People often ask if they should bring a child to a funeral. Some are for it, others are against it. Let’s look a little more in-depth at this common question.

Should children attend the funeral or memorial?

Yes, this can be very helpful in the grieving process. But don’t force your child to attend if they don’t want to.

When discussing this decision with a child it is important to ensure that what to expect from a funeral has been clearly explained to them and all their questions have been answered.

You want the child to make their own decision, but to do that they need all the appropriate information. Describe what the funeral will be like, talk about the reasons they may want to come, and also the reasons they may not want to come. Explain to them why people attend funerals at all, and let them know what the alternative is if they do not attend (where will they go, who will stay with them, and that they will still be able to say goodbye in other ways).

If a child decides they do wish to attend the funeral, the following are some tips to make sure it goes well.

  1. Let them be involved. Include them in choosing photos for any displays or videos at the funeral home, ask if there is anything they would like to draw or write to display at the service or place in the casket.
  2. Let them know what to expect. This includes everything from discussing whether there will be a casket (and will it be open or closed), an urn, flowers, photographs, etc. Let them know if there will be other funerals in the funeral home at the same time. Discuss that there will be a lot of people, adults may be crying, etc. If they seem apprehensive, take advantage of your camera phone and offer to take pictures of the funeral home in advance to show the child, so they have a visual of what to expect.
  3. Give them a buddy. Have an adult whose role is to be there with the child to answer questions, explain things, and take them outside (or home) if they wish to leave.
  4. Tell them it is okay to leave. Make sure they know that even if they decide to attend, if it gets overwhelming they can always decide to leave. Let them know their buddy will be happy to take them home or somewhere to take a break.
  5. Bring distractions. Be it a coloring book, journal, games, books, or other toys, kids might need a break from the viewing or funeral. Make sure they have something to do if they need some space but aren’t ready to go home. Before the funeral or viewing starts try to find them a “break” spot where they can leave the items and where they can go to get space.
  6. Debrief afterwards. Once the funeral is over, take time to process with the child. Find out how they are feeling about the funeral. See if there is anything they are confused about or didn’t ask about. Discuss whether there was something they wanted to do at the funeral and weren’t able to.

What to Say to a Grieving Child

Speak in age-appropriate words. Let them know you understand their sadness and that it is normal to feel this way. Treat the child as a person, with real and valid feelings.

Below you will find a list that researchers tell us are beneficial to say to children during grief.

  • “It’s hard to imagine that someone you love has died.”
  • “Sometimes, we feel like it is our fault when someone dies; it’s not.”
  • “I am sorry your grandma/grandpa, mom/dad, or brother/sister has died. I know you will miss him/her.
  • “When someone has died, it is okay to talk about them and remember them.”

Listening and validating their feelings is essential in the healing process. For more ideas about what to say (and what not to say), read this.

How to Comfort a Grieving Child

Comforting your child while you are going through your grief can be challenging. It is essential to be plain-spoken and candid.

  • Tell your child what to expect in the coming days.
  • Talk openly about a funeral or memorial service.
  • Give your child time to heal. Don’t rush them through the grief they are working on.
  • Allow your child to speak openly about death. Let them express their emotions.
  • You should check with your children to make sure they understand what was explained. Please continue to encourage them to speak openly and to ask you questions.
  • If the conversations are upsetting to your child, pause and come back to it when they are ready.
  • Let your child know that it is okay to share their feelings. (Share your feelings with them too.)

Be a stable factor for your child. They depend on you to take care of them and help to alleviate the worries they are experiencing.

Here are 83 Practical Ways to Comfort Someone.

Grief Activities for Kids

No two kids are going to cope with grief the same way. A 4-year-old will react differently than a 12-year-old. Use your best judgment when dealing with your child; after all, no one knows them better than you do!

This is just a shortlist of activities to consider. Upon researching your own, you will come across many activities to complete with your children.

1. Play “Finish the Sentence”

  • The thing that makes me saddest is…
  • If I could change something, it would be…
  • What I miss most is…
  • My favorite memory of grandma is…

Make up your own sentences. This is a way to find out what is going on in the mind of your child.

2. Create a memory box

Any container will do. Have your child decorate it and put items in that remind them of their loved one. They can add photos, drawings, or anything that evokes a happy memory.

3. Press flowers

Press flowers from the funeral in a book. You can even place them in a memory box!

4. Make a scrapbook

Let your child be creative! Fill their scrapbook with photos, drawings, poems, stickers, and anything that reminds them of their loved one.

This scrapbook kit (pictured above) is a good one which has everything you need to get started on a memory book.

5. Make a Christmas ornament in the memory of the person who died.

Find an idea online to help your child make a unique ornament. Hang it on the tree in a prominent position. This will show your child that their loved one is still important. Their loved one is still involved in holiday celebrations.

It will also give your child a boost. The craft they created is hanging in a place of honor.

Related: Beautiful Christmas Memorial Ornaments

6. Read helpful children’s books about death, loss, and grief

One way to help kids learn about death, loss, and grief is by reading to them. Reading is also a good way for older kids to learn about the journey they have embarked on.

You can find books on the loss of parents, siblings, friends, grandparents, and pets. You can find books for age groups pre-school and up. There are books to read, coloring books, workbooks, and journals.

You will find a good list of books for you and your children right here.

Supporting a grieving child through a funeral can be a daunting task, but just remember that if you allow them to drive the process and honor their needs, you are on the right track.

Open communication, active listening, support, and flexibility will ensure that you are able to meet the child where they are and provide them the support they need.

Read Next: 10 Gifts for Grieving Children

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