Coping with death and grief is challenging for adults, and can be even more challenging when trying to help your child through grief at the same time. Having an understanding of how children process grief from a developmental perspective can provide guidance on helping your child and entire family through a difficult time.
Please note: Every journey through grief is as individual as the person experiencing it. There are no rules or timeline for children or adults. Give yourself and child permission to grieve in the ways you need.
Grief Responses Across Childhood & Adolescence
Ages 2-5: Children at this age, and younger, do not understand that death is permanent and everyone eventually dies.
Grief Responses: Sadness, clingy-ness, sleep difficulties (nightmares, trouble falling or staying asleep), regressions (behavioral or verbal), non-compliance, or aggression. May continue to ask questions such as when the deceased is returning, or repeatedly verbally process the information through questions.
Ages 5-9: Beginning to understand that death is permanent and ends bodily functions (breathing, walking, talking). Still struggling with the fact that everyone eventually dies.
Grief Responses: May experience survivor's guilt or magical thinking, psychosomatic symptoms (stomachaches, headaches), difficulty concentrating or describing feelings, separation anxiety, anger, or possessiveness.
Magical Thinking: connecting two unrelated events.
For example: “I was mad at mom and then she
was in an accident, I caused the accident.”
Ages 9-12: Understands that death is permanent and ends bodily functions. Still struggling with the fact that everyone eventually dies.
Grief Responses: Fatigue, sadness, avoidance of feelings, acting out (verbal, behavioral), avoidance.
Ages 12+: Understands the permanence of death and the end of bodily functions. Continued struggle with the fact that everyone eventually dies.
Grief Reactions: Increase in anxiety, reliance on peers for support, avoidance, difficulty with the abstract concept of death. Possible high-risk behaviors (substance use, suicidal ideation, unsafe sexual activity), anger, defiance, aggression.
How to Talk to Kids about Death & Grief
Avoid euphemisms: Use concrete terms such as “‘death” and “died.” Avoiding terms such as “pass away,” “no longer with us,” “at peace,” or “lost” helps to avoid confusion about the permanency of death particularly in younger children.
When possible, prepare: It is impossible to actually prepare for a death but depending on the circumstances it can be helpful to clearly discuss what is happening. Deliver age-appropriate information in developmentally appropriate language.
For example, "Grandpa has an illness called cancer. The cancer is in his liver and is causing his body to die. That means when he dies, he will not be able to talk, or eat, or feel pain. He will be getting a lot of help from us and his doctors to be comfortable. We will probably spend a lot of time visiting or taking care of him. When we see him he might be tired or not feel well because of the cancer. He might act differently than we are used to. We are all very sad and we might cry or be upset. It is okay to be sad or cry.”
Get comfortable with uncertainty: We may not have all the answers and that is okay. Children and adolescents will naturally have many questions that you may not be able to answer. Responding with “I don’t know” or “not having an answer makes me feel worried/sad/angry too” helps to normalize your child’s feelings and experience.
Acknowledge your own loss: As a parent, or supportive adult, who is accompanying a child through grief and loss, you are also experiencing and navigating your own grief journey. Don’t be afraid to discuss your feelings or show that you too are grieving.
Use rituals: For some families rituals such as religious ceremonies or celebrations of life are an important part in the grieving process. If you choose to have your child attend, prepare them according to the type of event and their developmental stage. Discussing what the service will entail, what other people may say to them, and how to respond can reduce worry. Also consider on-going rituals to continue to remember and honor their life.
A word on disenfranchised grief: disenfranchised grief is grief from a loss that is stigmatized, or dismissed, by society (wyg.com). This includes death by suicide, drug overdose, pet death, miscarriage etc. These losses are significant and your grief is valid. If you or your child are in need of additional support, consider seeking out subject specific support groups or resources.
Are you feeling totally overwhelmed after a death? Struggling to help yourself or your child through grief? Reach out to your pediatrician, a mental health professional, or other resources for support.
The Center for Grieving Children: cgcmaine.org
The Dougy Center: dougy.org
What’s Your Grief: whatsyourgrief.com
American Academy of Pediatrics: aap.org
The American Cancer Society: cancer.org
National Alliance on Mental Illness: nami.org
Bereaved Parents of the USA: bereavedparentsusa.org
Children’s Books on Grief & Death
The Elephant in the Room by A. Edwards, L. Ponciano (2014)
Meet Me at the Moon by G.Marino (2012)
Where are You?, L. Olivieri (2007)
The Invisible String, P. Karst (2000)
The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, L. Buscaglia (1982)
Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing after Loss, P. Schwiebert (2006)
When Dinosaurs Die, L. Krasny Brown & M. Brown (1998)
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, K. Viorst & E. Blegvad (1987)
Kerin Riley is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who has experience working with children, couples, and families. She has a special interest in working with children and families who are coping with the impact of a traumatic experience or struggling with anxiety. Kerin works from an attachment-based and trauma-informed perspective. She has extensive training in Play Therapy and Child Parent Psychotherapy and uses both modalities in her practice to promote healing and growth. Kerin approaches clients from a place of compassion and respect. She enjoys collaborating with clients to identify and utilize their own individual strengths to reach their goals and create change.
In-network with Anthem BCBS, Cigna, Amerihealth Caritas
603.912.0484 extension 4