Children and Grief: How to Help a Grieving Child

Just as many adults struggle with grief after a death, so children struggle with grief as well. However, a child's experience of grief may be very different than an adult's, and may require a different approach.

How children may experience grief

For children, the concept of death may be unclear, and the feelings of grief will likely be new and foreign. A child may assume that the person who died is only gone temporarily and will return, which can lead to feelings of confusion, disappointment, frustration, and sadness. For some children, the death of a loved one may be accompanied by feelings of guilt and self-blame, and the child may think that his or her thoughts, words, or actions have caused the death. This line of thinking can lead to feelings of anger, loneliness, disorientation, and sadness. For many children, feelings of grief can cause nightmares, unpleasant thoughts, or anxiety.

How children may act while grieving

Children's feelings of grief may manifest themselves in "acting out" behaviors, such as anger, tantrums, play-acting like a baby, or a reluctance to participate in activities (such as social activities or school). A child may appear to be "fine," and then may experience an outburst of unregulated emotion. Or a child may lash out with anger at close friends or family members.

For some children, the experience of grief is much more internal, and a child may act as though nothing out of the ordinary has happened, sometimes to an extreme degree. Even for emotional children, there may be moments when the child seems unfeeling about the loss, and may vocally judge others for feeling emotional. 

Children may also obsess over the details of the death, the funeral, and the person who died. They may repeatedly tell the story of how the person died or what happened at the funeral. They may have an instinct to impersonate the person who died, or to talk about the person constantly.

How to help a grieving child

Speak honestly with the child. Though every family has its own cultural and religious views, it is important to communicate honestly with the child about what death means, what happened to the person who died, and why the person who died is not coming back. These conversations can be started by asking the child questions in order to establish what he or she knows, and then correcting any misinformation the child might have. Be prepared for ongoing conversations about what happened to the person who died and what death means; for many children, going over these topics many times can be helpful. 

Children may also have concerns related to the death that they want to discuss. After a death, many children wonder about their own deaths, the deaths of their parents or caregivers, and the deaths of their friends. Listen to the child's anxieties, and address them as honestly and seriously as you can.

Spend time with the child. Even if you yourself are grieving, it's important for the child to know that he or she is not alone. If the child needs space, he or she should be granted that space. But it's equally important for the child to know that he or she has adults who are available, present, and ready to listen, talk, or just hang out. Physical affection, such as hugging, can make a child feel cared for and safe.

Acknowledge the grief and anxiety. Feelings of anger, sadness, confusion, guilt, fear, and frustration (among many others) are all natural emotional responses to a death. By acknowledging how the child is feeling, you can let the child know that it is okay to feel these ways. Creating a space where the child feels comfortable expressing his or her feelings and grief can help the child feel "normal" and supported.

The value of community for grieving children

Many grieving children feel isolated in their experience of grief. Spending time with or relating to other children who have also experienced grief can be a very positive experience for some children. There are a number of weekend and overnight camps for grieving children, as well as in-person support groups, email support groups, and online forums where children and teens can talk to each other about their experiences in welcoming, supporting, understanding environments. Giving children and teens an opportunity to understand that they are not alone in their grief can help them process their feelings.

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