Children Grieve Too…

Death comes to every family and children are just as much a part of it as are adults.  If we are fortunate, we have time to prepare, time to say goodbye, time to share, time.  But sometimes death comes suddenly, unexpectedly.  Whether we have the gift of time or a sudden shock, the result is the loss of someone we love.  For children, this experience of loss is different and confusing.  It is different from adults because they are unable to understand the concept of death; and it is confusing because children aren’t prepared developmentally to cope with the ‘forever’ of loss.

Children grieve differently from adults, of course they do! They are not adults.  And children of different ages will respond to grief and loss in different ways.  Toddlers, for example, will respond to the situation – the change in routine, the emotions of their parents, the responsiveness of their parents to them, the chaos and drama that death and funerals can present.  They may refuse to eat, not want to sleep, reject affection, or be clingy and demanding.  School-aged children may seem rude or insensitive, asking questions that seem inappropriate (like, “Why is Aunt Jenny crying?” or “How come grampa is sleeping in that box?”) Remember, they are seeking information.  They want the facts.

Here are some tips for helping children (and yourselves) cope with loss in your family:

  1. Children are in the moment.  One minute they are sad and crying, the next they are playing happily.  Expect their moods to change, quickly.  They can act more mature or regress and talk like a baby or wet the bed.
  2. Be direct. Say specifically what happened. Someone died.  They will not come back.  Avoid euphemisms like ‘they’re sleeping’ or ‘they went to heaven’ or ‘they are gone to meet so and so.’  Remember children are literal, they will think someone has gone “somewhere” and will be back.
  3. Use the 10-word rule. Give them as simple of an explanation of everything as possible (10 words or less) and make sure that they know what is coming next so they are prepared.  Older children will ask a lot of questions; answer them simply.  If they want more information, they will ask.
  4. Give them a way to remember the person (if appropriate to their relationship). A memory book of pictures, drawings, or an electronic slideshow for them to watch helps them to hold the loved one close in mind.
  5. Ceremonies and funerals are at your discretion. One family told their child, “we are having a party for Great Grandma.” The child was confused when great grandma never came to her own party!  Sometimes children want to be included, or not bringing them is not possible, but often not including young children in a particularly emotional situation for the adults, is a gift to both the parents and the child.
  6. Finally, if it is too hard to talk about death, loss, and grief with your child consider reading them a children’s book such as one of these:

The Invisible String by Patrice Karst

The Memory Box: A book about grief. By Joanna Rowland

I Miss You: A First Look at Death by Pat Thomas

Something Very Sad Happened:  A Toddler’s Guide to Understanding Death by Bonnie Zucker

Goodbye Vivi by Antoinette Schneider

Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing after Loss by Pat Schwiebert

You may also watch Sesame Street together where they talk about Mr. Hooper’s death


Dr. Susan M. Carter is a clinical child psychologist and play therapist in private practice in Kalamazoo.  Find more helpful information on children and parenting at