Children of all ages grieve, but grief can look very different in different ages and at different times. Some children seem to bounce in and out of grief. Sometimes grief will not be noticeable at all. It may reappear at unexpected times or with certain life events. Every child’s response is unique and influenced by his or her temperament, relationship with the deceased loved one, and how that person died.
Grief is a natural part of life which children can successfully navigate with the help of their caregivers.
Stages of grief
Research from the Harvard Child Bereavement Study has identified four main stages or “tasks” of grief in children:
- Accepting the reality of loss
- Experiencing the pain or emotional aspects of loss
- Adjusting to an environment in which the deceased is missing
- Relocating the person within one’s life and finding ways to memorialize the person
Talking about grief
It is important to talk about death and grief using clear language such as “grandma died. She can’t breathe or sleep anymore and we will not see her again.” This helps avoid confusion and helps children understand death. Your child may withdraw if you don’t talk to him/her about the death of a loved one. However, you should never force a child to talk if he/she doesn’t want to.
Common responses to grief
In younger children, regressing to immature behaviors is common as is acting out in anger. School-aged children may feel guilty or worry that they could have done something to prevent the death from occurring. They also may worry about other people dying and seek reassurance from you. Teens may be angry and feel that nobody understands what they are going through. Give them space to talk or to express themselves.
Funerals – Should children go?
It is reasonable for children to attend a funeral, but they should be prepared for what will happen at the ceremony or graveyard. Be aware that it may be overwhelming, often because of the grief children are seeing on the faces of the surviving family members and friends. Be prepared to exit quietly if the service is too much for your child.
After the funeral, having your child participate in activities that help commemorate the loved one and sustain their memory can be very helpful. These might include putting together a photo albums, drawing a picture that reflects a treasured memory, or sharing memories with family and friends.
Continuing with daily routines and activities and providing structure will be helpful to most children.
They will feel supported and safe if they have consistency in their lives and have caring adults and family members who will be with them through their grief journey.
- Grief support services at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital
- National Alliance for Grieving Children
- The Shared Grief Project
- The National Center for Grieving Children & Families (The Dougy Center)
- The Coalition to Support Grieving Students
- Ele’s Place (a healing center for grieving children and teens)
Reviewed by Kelly Orringer, MD
Updated December 2018