How to Help a Child Grieve a Loss

Always explain death to a child in an age-appropriate manner

Whether you’ve lost a loved one or helped someone else go through it, you probably know that there are generally five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But did you know this grief model only applies to adults? Children grieve in a much different way. Their perception of death and their grieving process change in each developmental stage. That's why it’s important to explain death to a child in an age-appropriate manner. It’s equally as imperative to help a child grieve according to his or her individual needs.

How to Apply 5 Stages of Grief to Your Grieving Process

Children 5 and younger

At this age, children’s moods change on a dime. They might turn from screaming in anger to laughing and playing happily in a matter of seconds. They also may regress and act out. These are all ways of expressing grief. But overall, they don’t really understand what has happened.

“At this age, kids don’t understand that death is irreversible,” said Shawn Sidhu, M.D, training director at the Child Psychology Department at the University of New Mexico and volunteer spokesperson for the American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

They may think the deceased is sleeping or has gone away on a trip and will return.

“It’s important to talk about details,” Sidhu said. Don’t say “Grandpa passed away,” or “Grandpa has gone to sleep.” These can be scary images.

At this point, you can talk to your kids about your cultural or religious beliefs. You may say something like “Grandpa has gone to heaven.” Or you may want to tell them that grandpa lives on in our hearts and memories. Some cultures believe the deceased becomes a part of all living things.

“Be sure to tell them whatever is appropriate for your belief system,” said Sidhu.

As far as concrete issues, like attending the funeral, you may want to give your child the choice. But even if he or she doesn’t attend, Sidhu recommends that you perform a ceremony at home.

“You can light a candle or put something into a river and watch it float away,” Sidhu said. “Whatever it is, it should be something meaningful to your family.”

Emotionally, kids this age often feel like it’s their fault and they could have stopped it if they just behaved better. They don’t feel safe. It’s important to reassure your child. Tell her it wasn’t her fault, even if she didn’t do what she was told, and that nothing she could have done could have stopped it. Make her feel safe. Tell her you are not going anywhere and you will always take care of her.

You can use play therapy to help her understand, but above all, talk to your child. Ask open-ended questions that allow her to express her feelings. Allow her time to answer your questions.

How to Support Someone Who Is Grieving

Children 6 to 12 years old

At this age, your child might distract himself from the grieving process by throwing himself into sports, video games, drama club, or schoolwork.

“This is a tricky time,” Sidhu said. “Their language can approach that of an adult, but their ability to understand is that of a child. It’s important not to use euphemisms. You must say, ‘Grandpa died, and he is not coming back to life.’”

It’s very important at this age to ask your child how he is feeling. He may seem to have gotten over the death long before he actually has. It’s very important to continue the dialogue.

Kids this age express a lot of emotions through art, says Sidhu. Art therapy is a powerful tool.

Children 13 to 18 years old

Teens understand that death is permanent, and they may be more willing and able to talk.

“It’s important to let them grieve,” Sidhu said. “As parents, we want to take suffering away from our kids, but you have to do just the opposite. You have to acknowledge that the loss is awful and that you feel it, too. You have to avoid telling them to get over it or snap out of it.”

You need to realize teens don’t always turn to their parents. They often feel more comfortable opening up to friends. It’s important they have a strong peer group.

Teens need to feel a part of something and build a community. You can help them look for ways to volunteer. They may want to plant a tree or a garden, something that grows in honor of the loved one. They may want to find ways to memorialize the loved one’s good qualities by helping kids or senior citizens.

“We often talk about how to memorialize qualities,” Sidhu said. “You might say, ‘Grandpa was very kind, loving, and helpful. In what ways are you kind, loving, and helpful? When you are kind and helpful do you feel you are doing Grandpa proud?’”

Tips for any age

Sidhu says to remember the following, no matter your child’s age:

  • You’re your child’s role model. Show her that you’re sad and grieving too, but you’re working through your process.
  • Keep kids in their routine. This gives your child a sense of structure and safety. Don’t take your child out of school for months, for example.
  • Each child experiences grief in a different way, and the amount of time it takes to get through a loss varies. The goal of grief is acceptance and acknowledgement of the finality of what happened.
  • Your child may need grief support. Seek help if you notice these danger signs:
    • Excessive crying
    • Inability to function in school
    • Trouble sleeping or eating
    • Low energy
    • Suicidal thoughts
    • Hallucinations or nightmares
    • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • If you notice danger signs, Sidhu says these resources can offer help:
    • School therapist
    • Community mental health agencies
    • Local university’s Department of Psychology and Psychiatry
    • Grief support groups

Overall, Sidhu says, be there for your child and read cues.

This article may contain links to third party websites, but Great Western Insurance Company is neither responsible nor liable for their content, accuracy, or security. Review our Terms and Conditions to learn more.

Photo credit: iStock/Liderina

Find Grief Support

Search for grief support resources, such as in-person groups, online forums, and phone hotlines, available in your area.

Submit

Related Articles

Preplanning after a Loss: How Do You Want to be Remembered?

After losing a loved one, it's natural to start wondering, 'How do I want to be remembered?' Preplanning can help you record your answers.

Read More

Complicated Grief: How to Cope with Death

If the loss of a loved one consumes your mind and causes your relationships to suffer, you may be experiencing complicated grief.

Read More

How to Avoid Senior Isolation after Losing a Loved One

It’s important to find grief support and connect with others after a life partner passes. A lack of interest in social activities is normal following loss, but ongoing senior isolation can be dangerous.

Read More

Checklist: What to Do When Someone Dies

You've just lost a loved one. You're consumed by grief and can't think what to do next. Use this outline to walk through what to do when someone dies, step-by-step.

Read More

Understanding and Coping with Grief Attacks

If you’re struggling with unmanageable grief attacks during bereavement, this guide can help you understand what grief panic attacks are and how to cope with them.

Read More

Grief Support is Available in More Ways than Ever

Grief support groups try to connect you with others, but not everyone feels comfortable sharing their emotions. That’s why finding the right format to receive grief support is as important as seeking it in the first place. 

Read More

Understanding Bereavement Guilt

As you’re working through the stages of grief, it’s common to stir up bereavement guilt. To help you avoid being stuck in that phase for too long, we’ll help you understand what you’re feeling and how to cope.

Read More

Grief Books and Blogs for Coping with Loss

If you don’t have time to attend in-person grief support groups or seek grief counseling, the following grief books and blogs can offer assistance on your schedule.

Read More

How to Avoid Bereavement Scams after a Loved One Dies

Many families face bereavement scams after the loss of a loved one. But if you know what to look for, you can avoid being scammed and focus on finding grief support.

Read More

4 Ways to Turn Grief into Positive Action

Some bereaved use actions instead of emotions to grieve and to turn grief into positive effects. These stories may inspire you to do similarly as you’re coping with grief.

Read More

Coping with Grief during the Holidays

Grief is difficult enough on its own, but it seems to be magnified during the holidays. Try these 12 ideas to cope with grief during the holiday season.

Read More