Grief: Helping Children Understand

Getting Started

  • Be honest about the loss. Not telling children about a major loss may cause them to develop unrealistic fears and concerns. Children may also feel insecure because they know the adults are not being honest. Not telling a child that a loved one has died may prolong the child's grief.
  • Provide safety and security. To express their feelings, children need an adult who makes them feel safe and secure.
  • Tell other important adults in your child's life about the recent loss. Child care providers, teachers, and school counselors may also be able to help your child work through the grief.
  • Keep your child's age and emotional development in mind as you help your child work through grief. Children see loss and death in different ways as they grow and develop.
    • Children younger than age 2 cannot express with words what is going on in their lives. Reassure your child by holding and cuddling them.
    • Children between ages 2 and 3 are just learning to use words. Talk with your child using some of the same words your child uses. Speak clearly, but be brief when you explain a loss to your child.
    • Children between ages 3 and 6 often believe that their thoughts and wishes cause things to happen. Offer reassurance that your child did not cause the "bad" thing to happen.
    • Children between ages 6 and 10 do not always fully understand events that occur in their lives. They may invent conclusions or draw the wrong conclusions about things they do not understand. They may develop fears, such as a fear of death.
    • Children between ages 10 and 12 are able to understand loss the way adults do. They see death as permanent. They often want to be included in all activities as though they were adults.
  • Use activities to create ways for your child to express feelings about the loss. For example, storytelling may help your child express emotions through made-up characters. Let your child tell the story with different endings.
  • Read books with your child that help explain concepts of loss and death.
  • Have your child draw pictures about feelings.
  • Use stuffed animals, toys, and puppets to let your child play-act their emotions.

Credits

Current as of: October 18, 2021

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
Anne C. Poinier MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Jean S. Kutner MD, MSPH - Geriatric Medicine, Hospice and Palliative Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine

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This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated, disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. Learn how we develop our content.