Children's and Teens' Grief


The first thing we need to do to help children in the grieving process, is to understand a little bit about it ourselves. (I would recommend that you read the topic "Understanding Grief" on this site). Grief is not something that we are comfortable with as a society. Here is something to think about...

Children today are sheltered from the normal transitions in life. Death is a stranger, an intruder, not a normal part of living as it was a century or two ago. It used to be that several generations lived in the same house or at least close by. The youngest children learned about birth, illness, old age and death because these things all happened in their home. Other generations included children who saw their siblings, cousins and friends die from diseases such as diphtheria, smallpox, polio and even the flu. They were around their grandparents so much that they watched them age day by day-and perhaps helped in their care until they died. Everyone in the family mourned, together....What used to be so normal would probably be considered "dysfunctional" today. Our children have become a grief-free generation. We'd prefer to avoid mourning."  From It's Okay to Cry, A parent's guide to helping children through the losses of life by H. Norman Wright (I highly recommend this book, by the way!!!)

We experience far more losses throughout our lives than we do deaths. Loss is normal and unavoidable in life. We must learn to accept this for ourselves, so we can pass that knowledge onto children. Even if children are able to avoid major losses like death or divorce, they will still face frequent losses throughout childhood. Every transition to a new age or stage of development brings loss. It happens when they separate from parents to go to school. When they leave one teacher and classmates to move to the next grade.

If there is a major loss like death or divorce, it usually means it's the beginning of a series of losses. If a child loses a parent to death or divorce, the remaining parent may need to work more or longer hours. They may have to move, which may mean a new school and leaving old friends. Their lifestyle might drastically change if there is a change in financial status. They may have to lose extracurricular activities, etc.

It's important to remember that unresolved losses accumulate. They can create anxiety and depression. They can shape a person's personality. The emotions of childhood losses build up when there's no release, and they will overflow later on in life. We can try to ignore loss, but it makes an indelible mark on our lives anyway. 

We need to help children accept the loss, and express their sorrow.  We should not attempt to distract their pain, or replace their loss. An example of replacing the loss would be when a pet dies to immediately go out and buy another pet. The worst thing you could tell a child at such a time is "Don't cry, we'll get you another dog!" What are you subconsciously saying with that statement? You're telling the child that crying is not good. You're telling them that we shouldn't feel sad when we experience loss. Here's another example of what not to do. How many times when you were sad as a child, did someone try to distract you with things like..."Don't cry, here have a cookie", or something similar to that? It's well meaning, but it's harmful. It carries over into adulthood with things like, the need to go shopping when we're down, or the urge to eat chocolate when we're sad, etc. You're teaching them an inappropriate way to grieve that will carry over into their adult life AND they will probably pass that inappropriate way of grieving  onto their children. We must become comfortable with emotions and feelings ourselves, so that we can teach that to our children. Emotions are part of life, good and bad. If we are not comfortable expressing emotions, children pick that up, they'll absorb it, then they'll imitate it. They pick up the subtle and unsubtle ways a parent is emotionally shut down.  Examples of this would be, "Don't cry, or I'll give you something to cry about." "Big girls or boys don't cry", "I don't want to talk about it", "Grandpa wouldn't want us to cry". These statement all set a tone and a pattern. If your grief is healthy, you'll help theirs to be.

So, what should you do to be helpful to a grieving child? The first thing is to listen to their fears and concerns. Explain the situation to the child in terms they can understand and let them know what they can expect. We need to let them know that loss is normal and unavoidable. We need to help them face loss. It is an important lesson that will have an impact on how they face every future loss throughout their life. Don't put them down or tell them that their feelings are silly. If they are angry, tell them it's okay to be angry, but let them know correct ways to express their anger, i.e., it's okay to be angry, but it's not okay to hit your sister or yell at her. Then give them some appropriate ways to vent...draw pictures, hit a pillow on the bed, journal their feelings, etc., If their feelings are based on inaccurate visualized perceptions, correct them in a loving way. Explain in truthful terms which will help them understand the reality of the situation. Which leads to...

Be Honest!! Explain things at an age appropriate level, but be honest. If you have to euthanize a pet, say it with that term. Don't say you have to "put it to sleep" or "put it down". Kids have a way of visualizing things indifferent ways than adults. They might become fearful in their minds that the same thing could happen to them. Expect questions and answer them truthfully. Explain the animal had a disease or illness etc., that the doctors couldn't fix and this is the only way so he won't suffer anymore. Answer all questions and then help them say good-bye. Maybe have a little ceremony or have the child write a letter saying good-bye.  Maybe have them draw a picture. Give them a sense of closure. Check up on them periodically and ask how they're doing.

When it comes to the death of people and loved ones, again, the best policy is honesty.

If you say something like "they've gone to sleep for a long, long, time" the child might become fearful of sleeping.

If you tell them someone has "gone away on a long, long, trip", then they might become fearful of taking trips.

If you tell them "God wanted them up in heaven with them" then they might get mad at God that He would take them and not leave them here with them.

If you tell them "She was too good for this world. God wanted her in heaven." children have been known to start acting out and being bad so that God won't come and take them away to heaven too.

If you say "we lost" someone, instead of "they died"...the child might want to go out and look for them.

If they died of an illness, make sure the child understands the difference between a minor and fatal illness. You don't want them to become fearful every time they get a cold.

What you say and how you say it sets the stage for the thinking/feeling process of the child. That's why it's important to really listen to what they are saying and to "check in" with them to see where they are at in the grieving process. It is important to use truthful language about death and dying.

H. Norman Wright says that children can be given a choice about whether to attend the wake, funeral or burial. He cautions they need to be informed choices though. They need to be told what to expect and what they will see. Lay it out, step by step, what will happen, so they understand. They will ask questions and you need to answer them as truthfully and honestly as possible. This should be done in a  very patient, loving way. It's difficult to be patient sometimes when you are in the midst of making arrangements and in the midst of your own grief. It's imperative to not forget the children during this time. You may think they don't understand and so there's no need to talk to them. Like other things in childhood, what you don't tell them directly, they'll fill in the blanks so to speak, with their own, usually inaccurate information!


• I'm sorry your mom/dad/sister died.
• What was your dad/mom/brother like?
• Tell me about your__________.
• What was his favorite food?
• What do you miss the most?
• What is the hardest part for you?
• What is the hardest time of day for you?
• I cannot know how you feel, but I remember how I felt when my __________ died.
• I care about you.
• I care about how you are feeling.
• Is there anything I can do in the classroom to help?
• Is there anything in the classroom you would like to change to feel more comfortable?
• Would you like to talk about it?
• I'm available at this time, if you would like to come by to talk.
• Whenever you want to talk about it, I'm here for you.
• I'm thinking about you especially today because I'm aware that today is your mother's birthday (anniversary of
the death, your birthday, etc).
• I'm here to listen if you want to talk, or just spend time together if you don't want to talk.
• When is your recital (game, rehearsal, etc.)? Would it be okay if I stop by?

Here are some more things not to say...

• I know just how you feel.
• I know just how you feel…my dog died last year.
• Lick your wounds and move on.
• You'll get over it.
• It will be okay.
• Don't think about it.
• You are better off without him.
• Don't cry.
• It's your fault.
• You drove your father to drink.
• If only you had ___________________.
• Tears won't bring her back.
• Be strong.
• Forget about it.
• You are the man/woman of the house now.
• You should feel….(proud, relieved, happy, sad, etc.)                 

The most important thing you can do is to be there tuned in emotionally and physically. Let them know that you're there for them...that you love them..that you'll get through things together. Be honest. Let them know that you're sad too. Share you're faith. Pray with them. Encourage them to share their feelings. Be a safe haven for them to share with, to cry with, to be real with.

Tips To Help A Child Going Back To School After A Death