Helping Your Child or Teen Through Grief

Grief consists of many feelings, including sadness, anger, shock, isolation, loneliness, fear, guilt, jealousy, confusion, relief, hopelessness, frustration, and intolerance. There are also many behaviors associated with grief, including forgetfulness, distractibility, emotional highs and lows, increased fighting between siblings, physical symptoms, and regression (when children or teens behave as they did when they were younger). Adults have these same feelings but may show them in different ways. Help your child or teen understand how adults sometimes behave when they are grieving so they don’t feel responsible for an adult’s anger, distancing, or sadness.

It is healthy for you and your child to cry together, but you need to continue to be her support. It is not helpful if your child feels that she needs to support you.

Understand that a child or teen may be reluctant to share her concerns or feelings with you or other adults in the family because she doesn’t want to upset anyone.

A child or teen may find it difficult to put into words what he is feeling and may therefore act out his emotions through his behavior. His actions, behavior, and words will guide you to how he is feeling.

When under stress, children and teens may regress and behave in ways they did when they were younger. This is not unusual and, when tolerated, usually dissipates in time. If you have concerns about this behavior, consult a professional counselor.

Encourage your child or teen to attend the funeral or memorial service. Explain beforehand what she should expect so that she is prepared. If your loved one will be buried, ask your child if she wants to view the body in private in order to have a last goodbye. This can be important for children of any age, but a young child in particular often needs this concrete experience to help her understand the permanence of death and will sometimes ask to touch the body. Your child may also want to include cards or drawings in the casket before it is closed.

If your family member has been cremated, provide a simple explanation of cremation and how the service will be done.

Depending on your religious views, share your beliefs about life after death.

Maintain your child’s schedule and routine as much as possible, especially after the services are over and visitors have left. This provides a sense of normalcy and consistency that may otherwise be missing from your family’s life.

Suggestions for Remembering, Grieving, and Moving Forward

  • Talk about the person who died. Recall funny stories, happy and sad memories, and things he or she liked and/or disliked.
  • Let your child or teen know it is all right to talk about the unhappy memories.
  • Encourage your child or adolescent to keep pictures of her loved one to help her remember that person.
  • Try to maintain continuity and a consistent daily routine. The structure is reassuring and helps children feel safer and more secure.
  • Encourage your child to continue with his normal activities and to maintain contact with his friends.
  • Let your child know that she can still draw pictures for, write letters to, or talk to the person who has died.
  • Reassure your child that his loved one can always have a place in his heart.
  • Read age-appropriate books to your child about loss and grieving or suggest books for your teen that further illustrate and normalize death and the grieving process.
  • Help your child or teen understand that life is now different. Assist her in understanding that she may learn many things about herself, her family, and life as a result of this difficult experience. As you begin to redefine your life after this loss, help your child to do the same. Talk about the difficult changes that are taking place and discuss what is going well, too.
  • Explain to your child that grief lasts longer than anyone expects and that he may grieve this loss at different times throughout his life, but that with time it usually gets easier.
  • Let your child or teen know that you are available to answer questions, to give him a hug, and to remember your loved one.
  • Help your child to understand that it is good to laugh, have fun, and feel happy even after someone he loved has died.

Touching Grief: Frequently Asked Questions About Child and Adolescent Grief, by J. McCaw. [PDF Download]