Questions Parents and Caregivers Ask About Grieving Children

“Do Children Really Grieve?”

Experts in childhood grief answer with a profound “Yes!”  Not only do children grieve losses but they also can and do, with love and support, continue life in a healthy, thriving manner. 

A loss is the absence of someone or something that is loved, wanted, or important in life.  Loss for a child, like that of an adult, can be the loss of a person, a place, an object, an animal, or a hope or dream.  Some examples of loss for children are the death of a pet or someone significant, the moving away of friends, or changes in the family structure. 

Grief is a response to loss.  It is experienced in our entire body—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Grief is a natural process, experienced by children and adults, which moves one from being with to being without a loved person, place, object or dream.   It is finding a “new normal” in life. 

“How Do I Help My Child?”

The first step in supporting your child is to be there for the child and to recognize the loss the child has experienced.  These two actions tell the child that what they are experiencing is real and important.  Also be aware that a major loss may contain other secondary losses that should be recognized, honored, and grieved.  Secondary losses are consequences of a major loss.  An example of secondary loss would be the absence of companionship with a dad after death or divorce.   

It is also important to provide a secure environment where schedules and boundaries for the child remain as consistent as possible. The continued presence of adults who listen, guide, comfort and support is healing for the child.  In times where parents are grieving and overwhelmed, it may be helpful for other adults who are significant in the child’s life to step in and provide support. 

“What Does a Child’s Grief Look Like?” 

All children grieve differently; no two children experience grief in the same way.  Children also grieve a little at a time. A child may be sad and angry one minute and running off to their favorite play activity the next.  

Children may not have the words to describe their grief; they show their grief in play or social interactions. Toddlers who do not understand their parents’ grief may regress or become clingy or irritable.  

Physical reactions to grief may include an increase or decrease of activity, changes in appetite, headaches, stomachaches, bowel or bladder changes, and increase of colds or infections.  Emotional reactions experienced by a child could include but are not limited to numbness, anger, anxiety, sadness, crying, helplessness, and hopelessness.  Spiritual reactions could include feeling abandoned, lost and empty, or not cared for. 

Grief for children is experienced in layers. As a child moves into another developmental stage, the loss is readdressed and understood in new and different ways.  A child who experienced the death of a sibling at four years of age will grieve that sibling loss and understand the loss in new ways as they approach adolescence. 

Author: Nancy Kingma, RN, BSN, MA, LLP, LPC, NCC