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Helping children grieve
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Understanding Grief


It is difficult to imagine the force of loss until we experience loss. Whether it is the loss of a parent, sibling, or a pet, the shock can be overwhelming. With little life experience children may emulate the way adults are grieving. If adults grieve openly, children will usually believe it is alright for them to grieve openly. But if adults stifle grief to be strong for their children, children will try to be strong for their parents, which is harmful for both adults and for their children.

The differences in the way people grief varies from culture to culture. And the way grief is expressed can vary from region to region in the same country.

However adults or children feel, whatever they think, and however they express their grief, they should understand that their feelings or expressions are a normal part of processing grief and typical of most people who grieve. And they should be allowed to express their grief in their own way as long as their actions do not negatively affect them or others.

The impact of loss typically affects four areas of our life – cognitive (thinking, psychological), emotional, physical, and behavioral – and our reactions usually fall within the symptoms under the age group information we have listed.

Please understand that the age group grief symptoms are typical, are not inclusive, and that children may present with symptoms that are not listed under their particular age grouping.

To help children grieve we encourage you to consider the suggestions at the end of this article.

Older Children may process grief in ways similar to adults. Please refer to our brochure Under-standing Grief for typical grief reactions and grief cycle.


Newborn to One Year
  • Separation anxiety (with loss of mother)
  • Resistance to care givers
  • Inability to sleep; restlessness
  • Excessive crying or display of temper
  • Fear of being left alone
  • Failure to thrive (indication of pathological depression; warrants professional care)

One to Two Years Old

  • Sense of loss but no concept of death.
  • Sudden and unexplained random emotions (crying, anger, jealousy, affectionate).
  • Fear of being left alone or left with a care giver. Separation anxiety.
  • Excessive asking why (departed) does not come home.

Two to Five Years Old

  • May demand excessive attention or misbehave to command attention.
  • They may remember some parts of the dying event but until they understand the reality of death they may become angry at the departed for abandoning them.
  • Sadness, anger, or other emotions may be expressed in their artwork.
  • May be reluctant or extremely cautious about accepting new adults into their life.

Six to Ten Years Old

  • Difficulties interacting with other children.
  • Disinterest in school or favorite activities.
  • Thinking their loss was God’s punishment for them not being good.
  • Questions about matters of faith or life after death.
  • Regressive actions (thumb sucking, baby talk) may warrant professional counseling.

Go to to download information regarding youth and adult grieving – Understanding Grief.




Many people, including children, experience stress triggers and anniversary reactions during grief recovery. Some stress triggers are related to special events related to the deceased - a birthday, special locations where significant events happened, sights, smells, seeing someone that reminds one of the deceased – all these things can bring back memories and feelings of grief.

Other anniversary reactions are related only to the calendar. Some people have reactions (subconscious) at regular calendar intervals – three months, six months, one year, eighteen months, and annually thereafter until they find a sense of balance. Typically the body begins stressing about two weeks before the calendar date. The person may not feel well, have physical problems, be depressed or angry, lethargic – a variety of symptoms that are not typical to them. Once the calendar date passes the person may suddenly feel like themselves again or gradually feel better in few days. This is a normal part of the grief recovery process.

Physical symptoms may be related to grief stress (psychosomatic) or may be a symptom of something serious. If you are concerned about a physical symptom you should immediately consult your doctor.


• Assure the child that you are there and care for them. • Let your child talk, listen to them intently, and correct any misunderstandings. • Small children have difficulty expressing themselves with words so ask the child to draw a picture to show how they feel. For children who can write, ask them to write a short story (4 or 5 sentences) about how they feel. Review the pictures or stories the next day. Repeat the process as needed. • Watch the child during play times to see if they express any mood that would be of concern. • Take your child for a walk and show (a dead bird, bug, leaf, etc.) that every life has an end. • Give the child something positive to do so they feel like they are contributing something of importance. • Do not avoid their difficult questions and give answers as simply as possible. • Tell your child it is alright to be sad. If continued sadness or expressions of depression linger, consider getting professional assistance. • Reestablish a regular daily routine for your child as soon as possible.


• Draw a picture or write a story about the person who died. • Plant a flower, bush, or tree to remember the person. • Prepare a photo of the person in some special way to be kept in the child’s room. • Help the child collect small things for a small box that they can keep to remind them of their loved one.


When caring for others it is easy to forget to take care of ourselves. Don’t be reluctant to receive offered help, ask for help, or listen objectively to comments of friends about how you are dealing with your grief. If need be, seek professional assistance. Your well being and the well being of your child are too important to try to do it all alone.


For more information, visit the following websites.

Child Welfare League -

Dr. Greene -

Children’s Ministry -

Center for Loss and Life Transition -

Focus on the Family -

Grief Watch –





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