How to Help a Grieving Child

Parents have a natural inclination to protect their children from pain. However, after the death of a loved one, children must go through the grieving process in order to experience emotional healing. As much as we may wish to shield children from pain following the death of a loved one, children will be impacted by this devastating loss. We can help guide them through their grief, but we cannot take the pain away. This article offers information on how children at various ages respond to death and how you can support them through the grieving process.


“…children are people experiencing life, not just getting ready for it. Because death is part of life, it inevitably touches them.” -Dr. Kroen (1996)

Frequently asked questions

How should I tell my child about the death?

There is no right or wrong way to share with your child the death of a loved one. Try to be as honest as possible and do not be afraid to use the words, “died” or “dead.” It is confusing for children to hear words such as, “lost,” “taken away,” or “passed away.” If your child asks what ‘died’ means, use honest words that let your child know the loved one has stopped living. Dr. Kroen recommends a statement such as, “Daddy’s body has totally stopped. It can’t walk, breathe, eat, sleep, talk, hear, or feel anymore.” Depending on your religious beliefs, you can share with your child something like, “Even though Daddy’s body has stopped working, the part inside Daddy that makes him ‘Daddy’ is now in heaven with Jesus.” Reassure your child that he or she did not cause the death.

Should my child attend the funeral?

Generally, children six years and older should be allowed to attend the funeral if they want to. They should not be forced to attend. For some children, attending the funeral serves as a source of closure. It can also allow the child to gain support from others who are grieving. Prepare your child in advance for what he or she might see. Explain what will happen, such as whether the casket will be open or closed. Let your child ask questions to alleviate any uncertainty about what will take place. It is okay to ask another family member to speak with your child about the funeral if you are too upset to have this conversation.

Is it okay to cry in front of my child?

Absolutely! Children learn skills, even how to grieve, by watching others. Crying in front of your child teaches your child that it is okay to express their sadness. It gives your child permission to grieve. Holding in our feelings is not healthy and does not teach our children a healthy response to grief.

Developmental Stages and Understanding Death

Children react to death in different ways. Developmental stages play an important role in how children understand death and how they grieve. Below is a brief summary based on age for how a child may respond to the death of a loved one.

Birth to age 2

Infants and young toddlers are typically not able to comprehend the meaning of death, but they are able to sense changes in schedules and routines. Try to keep the child’s routine as consistent as possible. While nothing feels normal after the loss of a loved one, a sense of normalcy provides security to infants and young children.

Ages 2 to 5

Children ages 2 to 5 tend to be very egocentric, believing that the world centers around them. They are in the early stages of distinguishing between their thoughts and feelings and the thoughts and feelings of others. Death is often viewed as reversible. They are not yet cognitively able to understand the finality of death and may repeatedly ask when the loved one is coming back. It is important to avoid vague language (i.e. “passed away” or “sleeping”) when answering their questions about death. Give short, honest answers with lots of reassurance and nurturing. Children at this age will often grieve through their play. Parents sometimes ask when it is okay for a child to resume play after the death of a loved one. Play does not mean that the child is unaffected by the death. It often serves as a means for the child to work through grief.

Ages 6 to 9

Children between the ages of 6 and 9 are developing an increased sense of independence. They ask many questions as a means of understanding the world around them. They are able to view death as a permanent loss. However, along with this understanding, they may also have a sense of guilt believing that their loved one died because of something they did. It is important to reassure your child that he did not cause the death. Because children in this age group are beginning to have a more accurate understanding of death, they may fear that they will die or become anxious that other loved ones will die. It is important to provide frequent reassurance in order to help children feel safe to cope with their fears, anxieties, and sadness. Children may grieve through symbolic play, drawings, and stories. Allow and encourage your child to express feelings through physical outlets and verbal expression.

Ages 10 to 12

Children in this age range are beginning to develop self-confidence and logical thinking. They are able to better understand the impact of the death on themselves and their families. However, they may deny this impact making comments such as, “It doesn’t matter,” or insisting that they are doing fine. It is not uncommon for preadolescent children to exhibit angry behavior after the death of a loved one. Allow your child the opportunity to talk openly with you; however, give your child alone time if this is what he needs. Do not ignore excessive anger or violent behaviors. These may be signs that your child needs to speak with a counselor or psychologist to work through grief.

Adolescents

Adolescents are able to think and reason abstractly. While they have a more adult understanding of death, their emotional states may vary dramatically. The death of a loved one intensifies an already tumultuous stage of life. Teenagers may wonder how the death will affect their future plans. This should not be viewed as selfish or uncaring. Emotional states may change back and forth from anger, shock, denial, fear, guilt, etc. It is important to allow your teenager time to grieve and process the death in his or her timeline. Watch for extreme withdrawal or prolonged sadness as these may be signs that your child needs to speak with a counselor or psychologist. Sometimes adolescents are more open to talking with outside individuals than with family members.

How to Help Your Child Grieve

  • Talk with your child openly and answer questions about death
  • Be available- spend one on one time with your child
  • Accept and ask for help from others- People want to help. Let them know what you need. By allowing others to help with various tasks, you free up some of your energy to grieve and spend time with your child.
  •  Let go of any preconceived ideas about how your child should grieve. Every child is different and will grieve in his or her own way.
  •  Read books together about death. See “Recommended Resources” below.
  • Provide opportunities for expression- draw or paint a picture, write a letter, make a photo album, write a song, plant a tree, etc.
  • Get professional help if needed

When to Seek Professional Help

Children vary in how long they grieve the death of a loved one. It is not uncommon for children to grieve for several years. They may exhibit periods of normal behavior interspersed with times of grief. You may want to seek professional help for your child if you notice any of the following signs:

Extreme changes in behavior

Extreme withdrawal for long periods of time

Lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities and friends

Frequent nightmares


Prolonged physical complaints that have no medical basis (i.e. stomachache, changes in appetite, shortness of breath, fatigue, headaches)

Changes in school performance

Weight loss

Lack of interest in life/future

Recommended Resources:

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