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Helping a Grieving Child
Children grieve differently than adults do. Age and maturity level play important roles in how children understand death and how they express their feelings of grief. The following conditions may affect the intensity, duration and direction of a child’s grief:
- The quality of his or her relationship with the deceased
- The amount of time the child spent with the deceased and the experiences they shared
- The nature of the death—was it sudden, anticipated or violent
- The behavior of surrounding adults—are they supportive and open or secretive
- The child’s involvement in family conversations and activities
- The child’s contact and relationship with siblings and peers
- The family’s cultural, ethnic and religious heritage
Children usually express their emotions through their behavior. Some will grieve intensely for a period of time and then act as though nothing has occurred. Others become overwhelmed by intense emotions, including longing for the loved one, anger, sadness, loneliness or helplessness. Some withdraw from friends and family or lose interest in activities they once found enjoyable. Following the death of a loved one, a child can also experience sleeplessness or nightmares.
You play an important role throughout a child’s grief journey. In addition to supporting the child, encourage him or her to express himself or herself in healthy ways. Though most children recover from the acute phase of grief because of strong support and patience, understand that a child will grieve the loss for the rest of his or her life.
THINGS THAT CAN HELP
- Keep routines and schedules consistent.
- Answer questions honestly and directly, using clear, age-appropriate language.
- Provide unconditional love, affection and encouragement.
- Never force a child to attend a funeral service. After explaining what will take place, allow the child to decide if he or she wants to attend.
- Maintain contact with the child’s teachers, coaches and ministers.
- Encourage questions.
- Work with a competent counselor.
- Enroll the child in a camp or support group for grieving children.
- Let the child know that his or her emotions are normal.
— Adapted from an article by Nancy E. Crump, M.S., Certified Grief Counselor