When Children Experience Grief
Understanding & Helping Children Cope with
Death, Divorce, and Other Losses
“Grief is the conflicting feelings caused by a change
or an end in a familiar pattern of behavior” (James &
The Hospice Foundation of America
refers to grief as a reaction to loss.
"The term grief
describes the healing process, which includes the ups &
downs, the adaptations to change, & the numerous small
negotiations, bringing a person to a new dimension of
life” (Perschy, 1997).
losses are those experienced through death, divorce,
moving, or health matters.
losses include, but are not limited to, a loss of
safety, loss of trust, financial loss, loss of control,
or loss of identity such as when a family blends.
children are not able to grieve, they can experience
persistent nightmares, sleep/eating disorders,
depression, risk of suicide, school difficulties, and
other stress related disorders.
A child’s understanding of
loss, especially death, is closely tied to their cognitive
level and age.
Ages 2-7, Children may:
Not understand the finality of death
Question death, such as how the dead eat, sleep, go to the
Feel they did something to cause the loss
Understand precise concrete information
Ages 7-11, Children
Begin to see death as irreversible, but feel it will not
happen to them for some time
Personify death as a person, ghost or spirit
Feel death only happens to the sick & elderly
Begin to see death as universal, final, & inevitable
Have nightmares about loved ones dying
Ages 12-18, Children
Romanticize & dramatize death
Fantasize about own funeral or death
Feel of invincible and challenge death with high-risk
expressions of grief because of a strong desire to fit in
with their peers
The Grief Process
Emotions related to loss: Pain, Sadness,
Grief, Anger, Guilt (Vernon, 2004)
The following stages describe a pattern
many experience as they go through the grieving process:
1. Numbing, shock, denial
2. Anger, searching, questioning, bargaining
3. Disorganization, despair, depression
4. Completion, acceptance, reconciliation, reorganization
Related to the stages of grieving are the
tasks one must go through as they heal.
Awareness of these tasks can help a
grieving person take an active role in the process of
healing (Perschy, 1997):
The task of understanding and accepting the loss
The task of grieving and experiencing the grief
The task of commemorating and confirming the reality of
the loss and adjusting to a changed environment
Assessing a Child’s Loss
Important Issues to Consider:
Developmental and chronological age
How does child handle
How has the child
handled loss in the past?
How does the child
Social, school, & mental functioning
Factors related to loss
the loss sudden or anticipated?
3. Cultural, familial,
and religious background
Was the child involved in mourning rituals?
How are their friends/peers reacting to the loss?
What are the family’s religious and cultural beliefs?
Characteristics of Grief in Children:
forgetfulness, disorganization, inability
to concentrate, lack of motivation or interest,
impatience or low tolerance, regressive
behaviors, physical complaints (stomachaches, headaches),
clinginess & whiney moods, temporary drop
Helping Your Child Cope With Loss
Reading together is one of the most useful
strategies in helping children and adolescents understand
and move on when they have experienced loss.
Counselors can read to children to
facilitate discussion or offer books to parents to discuss
with their children. Reading books about loss helps
introduce the topic whether in a group, working with an
individual or in a classroom guidance setting. Books are
often written from the perspective of an animal or object,
or can be someone else explaining their feelings.
Henkes, Kevin. Sun & Spoon. 1st ed.
New York: Greenwillow Books, 1997.
Bunting, Eve and Rand, Ted. The memory
string. New York: Clarion Books, 2000.
Creech, Sharon. Chasing Redbird.
1st ed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997.
Rylant, Cynthia. Missing May. New
York: Orchard Books, 1992.
Wiles, Deborah. Each little bird that
sings. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2005.
Buscaglia, Leo. The Fall of Freddie the
Leaf. Thorofare, NJ: SLACK Incorporated.
Support groups or Camps such as the
Comfort Zone Camp in Richmond or Full Circle Grief
Center (804-241-9662) can be helpful when children start
to work through their grief. Counselors use activities
that can help children work through their emotions such as
the creation of memory books, painting or writing about
the loss and sharing with others who are experiencing
similar feelings. Teaching children problem solving
strategies will also help them learn how to manage
difficult emotions and changes in their environment.
Keys Things to Remember
When Working With Grieving Children
Adults model grieving behavior
“Maybe it’s better to feel bad, when feeling bad is the
normal reaction to an event” (James & Friedman, 2001).
Do not try to replace the loss
It is okay to share about sadness, you do not have to
It is okay to be human, grieving is not a sign of weakness
Children also need time to mourn their loss
An essential part of grieving
is sharing about the loss, be a listening ear.
Please contact Mrs.
Donaldson (723-2308) for more information
or if you have any questions or concerns.