Children and Grief: Part 1 in a 7 Part Series

By: Patti Doumany, MEd, LPC-S, RPT-S

Our postmodern understanding of grief all too often conveys a message that mourning occurs in a series of completed tasks. When Elizabeth Kubler-Ross published the five stages of grief in her book, On Death and Dying, she never intended stages to be viewed as neat sequential steps. This faulty understanding implies an orderly progression to the grieving process and gives rise to shame and guilt. As a grief therapist, I have heard countless times, “I – he – she – should be over it.” Added to this statement is an expectation of the magical one-year marker. “It has been a year. I – she-he should be able to move on.” Familiarity with Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) is helpful when understood as normal reactions, which may, or may not occur in any order and at any time.

The truth is, when someone we love dies, our life is changed forever. There is no going back to normal. We can, however; heal through reconciling with the past and discovering new meaning in our lives. The work of mourning is done by embracing the memory of our deceased loved one and honoring the imprint they have left on our hearts and mind.

It takes an act of courage to help another face the reality of death. For children to heal in a culture that denies the reality of death, they must be taught and encouraged to mourn. A supportive empathic person can help by accepting the many feelings associated with the child’s experience while respecting the individuality of their unique needs of mourning. I hope you will find information contained in this series of articles beneficial to this important process. The most essential tool for assisting a grieving child will not be found in this or any other publication. The key component to helping a grieving child is a willingness to keep an open heart while entering into the darkest of nights and the joyous memories of the child’s deceased loved one.

Alan Wolfelt, author, speaker, educator, and director of The Center for Loss and Life Transition outlines six needs of mourning. I will review these needs of mourning, as they pertain to children, over the next several articles. I will also include common myths surrounding children and death, developmental age differences in the understanding of death, and practices to help a grieving child. In the final article, the phenomenon of the near- death experiences (NDEs) of children is addressed.

The First Need of Mourning: Acknowledge the Reality of the Death.

We cannot expect a child’s knowledge of death to be like that of an adult. Children conceptualize death differently. Because they lack the life experience of adults and live in the present, their vision of a future without their loved one is unforeseen. Their reality of death is partially shadowed under the protective veil of childhood. Although young children may not fully understand death, they are never too young to feel and experience loss.

Children must be given clear honest explanations about death. Information should be tailored to a child’s developmental understanding. It is important that we help children understand that the person who has died will not be coming back. If the child is only givenpartial truths about the death, this first need of mourning can take years. Children cannot

learn to cope with what they do not know. Euphemisms such as “passed away”, “is sleeping”, or “gone to be with God”, are confusing to a child, and do not allow the child to move into mourning. Simply stated, a child needs to know that the person who has died will no longer breathe, talk, walk, hear, see, or feel. Children can cope with death, but they cannot cope with what they do not know. There are some wonderful children’s books to help a child with this first need of mourning. (See list at end of article)

Telling a child a loved one has died: The news of a death is best given by a person who has a warm trusting relationship with the child. Staying calm when delivering the news of a death helps prevent unnecessary trauma. Go to a secure and private room. Clearly tell the child the person has died. For example, say something like, “Grandma died.” Wait for the child to respond before providing more information. A child may not ask how or why at that moment. This is a normal reaction. The aim is not to flood the child with too much information. A child might immediately ask, “How?” Give an honest and clear explanation. “Grandma had a heart attack.” It is important that you do not tell the child the deceased died simply because they were sick. This can lead to anxiety over the slightest cold or fever. Instead tell them the nature of the illness. “Uncle Jimmy died because he had a disease called…”

Many children do not openly respond to the news of death. They may appear indifferent or lack feeling. This is the child’s way of coping. In addition, a child ‘s experiences around death may be limited. If a child has not experienced the death of a loved one, they do not know what to expect. Acknowledging the reality of the death may take several months. Children need continued opportunities to play–out and act-out the circumstances of the death. They move in and out of the grieving process, approaching and distancing from the pain of loss. If you are concerned your child is not coping with a death, contact a registered play therapist trained in the field of grief and loss. You can find registered play therapists (Credentials read RPT or RPT-Supervisor) in your area at Your child may benefit from formal play sessions that facilitate the grieving process by providing an environment for free expression of the child’s inner and outer world.

Developmental Understanding: Children’s understanding of death changes at different developmental stages. Development is as individual as your child. Be aware that children will re-grieve as new developmental stages and important life events bring new understanding of death.

The following chronological ages are presented as a general guideline. Children ages 2 – 4 years of age believe death is temporary and reversible. They may ask, “When is grandpa coming back?” or act as if the person is still alive. They may exhibit fears of separation. Children ages 5-9 years of age believe death can be avoided. They may believe that the death was their fault and have fantasy thinking and wishes. Children ages 9-12 may think of death as a punishment. They want and need information about the death. The grief response of children over the age of 13 is similar to adults. They understand that death is universal and permanent. They respond with intense emotions.

Grief Reaction: Many factors influence the grief reaction. Among them are the role the deceased occupied in the child’s life, the child’s past experiences with loss and

death, the circumstances and timeliness of the death, sudden verses expected death, the child’s personality and coping skills, the parents’ reaction, the availability of a strong support system, the child’s understanding of death, and the child’s level of maturity. Children may respond to the news of a death with indifference. Remember this reaction is normal, but may be alarming to an adult who fears the child lacks empathy or a capacity to care. This indifferent attitude response is the child’s natural way of self- protection. Children move in and out of grief. A child will laugh and play and then experience a wave of sadness. This grief process repeats itself with the waves gradually occurring less often, with less intensity.

To help a child, we must think with our hearts, not pushing the child to grieve or inhibiting the child by attempting to soften the blow. Talk often of the person who died. Tell your child stories about the person, and listen to what your child is telling you about their experience with loss.

Anxiety: It is common for a child to generalize death to all people in their life. Children will worry that if one person they love died, then others, including themselves, will soon die. It is not uncommon for children to become preoccupied with their own health, or to become “clingy.”

“Protecting” a child from the cause of death, or giving half-truths encourages the child to repress emotions, lose trust, and creates avoidant behaviors. Grief does not go away without healthy outward expression.

Expression: Children will experience a wide variety of feelings surrounding the death. Frustration, loneliness and guilt are all a part of grief. It is normal for a child to be angry with the person who died. Unfortunately, many normal reactions to death are shamed in our society. Crying is seen as weakness and grief is to be over within a short time. You can best help the child by reflecting the child’s feeling. “You are really mad Mommy died and can’t be here for your school play”. An example of a well-intended but unhelpful comment is, “You’ll be fine. Don’t think about it. We came to see the play, and so did your brother and sister.” This comment, while appearing nurturing, negates the child’s experience and shuts down the process of grieving.

Children and funerals: There is an unfortunate growing trend toward minimizing rituals surrounding death. Funerals are becoming shorter and more meaningless. Children are too often discouraged or not allowed to attend funeral services. Children should be permitted to attend funerals. They need clear explanations of what will happen at the funeral service as well as permission to feel and appropriate ways of behaving. If a child is old enough to feel a child is old enough to grieve. Funerals help the child to acknowledge the reality of the death, stimulate memories, allow for social support, and give meaning to spirituality. For very young children, it is wise to have a person the child knows and trusts available to take the child outside if necessary.

We cannot find words to make the hurt go away. There aren’t any. We cannot protect our children from experiencing the joys and sorrows of life. We can provide love, support, and patience while walking along side our children, listening and learning from the challenges they face.

Books for children that acknowledge the first need of mourning:

When Dinosaurs Die: A guide to Understanding Death, by Brown & Brown

Gentle Willow, A Story for Children About Dying, by Joyce C. Mills

Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley

A Child’s Book About Burial and Cremation by Grollman and Johnson

The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, by Judith Viorst

Lifetimes, The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Mellonie and Ingpen.

References Doumany, P. (2005) Children and Grief: A 7 part series. In Thoughtful Parenting. Aubrey Town Charter.

Wolfelt, A. (2004) A Child’s View of Grief. Ft. Collins, CO: Companion For permission to reprint contact:

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