Helping Children with Greif

Jan 19, 2024, 09:36 AM by Dr. Sally Robinson


We are surrounded by seemingly never ending information about children and young people caught up in situations of domestic violence, starvation, and weather disasters.  Death and dying seem unreal but bad things do happen. Many continue to believe that childhood is a time of happiness and joy but not always.  No one is prepared for the experience of grief and there is no “right” way to live through it.

Grief is the process of emotional and life adjustment when the loss of a loved one has occurred.  It is a personal experience with universal feelings of sadness and aloneness that may vary in intensity and from moment to moment.  Death effects all members of the family, parents, grandparents, siblings, and other family members.  Everyone feels the loss of a loved family member in a deeply painful way.

Decades ago Dr. Kubler-Ross summarized a pattern of grieving as the “five stages of grief”, which are: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages occur in all age groups and do not necessarily occur in order or once experienced go away.  They also may come and go.

Every person, child or adult, goes through these stages in their own way, in their own time, and may be back and forth. For children experiencing such a loss may have different reactions depending on their age and understanding of their loss.

Before COVID-19 pandemic it was estimated that 1 in 20 children experienced a parent’s death by age 16.  In 2021 it was 1 in 5 children. The pandemic’s associated isolation and the significant mental health issues associated with this isolation has required special attention and grief education of those caring for them.  Some children may want to talk about the person who died while others don’t. They may want to shield the surviving caregiver who is also experiencing grief. Their behavior may be different than before the loss and this may signal they need support.

Some signs a child needs help are as follows: ongoing sleep difficulties or restlessness, low self-esteem or depression, persistent academic failure or lack of interest in school activities, breakdown of relationship with family or friends and risk-taking behaviors such as drugs and alcohol.  Some ways to help children of any age is to remember and talk about the deceased person, get them back into a regular routine of school with the help of tutoring and temporary changes in their workload, and talk to their healthcare provider for extra help. It is OK for adults to show their own pain.  It may be helpful to let them know that these feelings come and go.  There are many community resources that can help such as your pediatrician, counselors, social workers and therapists making sure the child understands that seeking help from others is an act of strength. 

For all ages check 25 Children’s Books that Explain Death and Grief to Kids by Caroline Bologne.  Reading these together will help all love ones to grieve together. 

by Sally Robinson, MD Clinical Professor
Keeping Kids Healthy
Published 01/2024

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