Know What To Expect
Jump to a topic:

Discussing Death with Children

Understanding & Reacting

Understanding Children's Grief

A young child's perception is oriented in the five basic senses. It is very difficult for children to comprehend the concept of death. Below are some common factors in childhood grief, regardless or age.

Children are concrete in their thinking. They need simple and honest explanations of death. For example: "Sometimes someone is hurt too badly or is too sick for the doctors and nurses to help them. Their body stops working. They don't breathe; their heart doesn't work. They don't feel hungry or tired. They have died."

Children generalize from the specific to the general. Because of this, it is important to use words like "dead," "died," and "death." Phrases such as "We lost Dad" or "Grandma went away" can be very confusing for children.

Children are repetitive in their grief. They may ask the same question over and over. They may often need to hear the story of how their loved one died.

Children may regress to more secure time. Children may go back to a form of coping that once worked for them. Examples of regression include bedwetting, thumb sucking, attachment to a security item, increased crying and clinging to a caregiver.

Children are physical in their grief. This is often referred to as "The Big Energy of Grief." It is important to provide outlets for this energy. Running games, sports, punching bags, and play dough are examples of ways to release this energy out.

Children grieve cyclically. As they mature, they may revisit feelings, questions and behaviors they had previously gone through. It is important to remember the person who died. Sharing stories and keeping photographs displayed are good ways to keep memories alive.

Children need control. It is important to offer choices to children whenever possible. The death of a loved one leaves a child feeling very out of control. They need to feel some part of their life is in their control.

Children grieve as part of a family. It is important to include children in family decisions and activities. A child's grieving of the adults in their lives. If adults who do not talk about feelings surround a child, the child will not talk about feelings. If the expression of feelings is a model for children to follow, they will be more likely to feel comfortable expressing their feelings.

Grief Reactions in Children

Anger: A normal and healthy grief reaction. Anger needs to be expressed in appropriate ways. Sometimes anger is directed at the person who died ("Why did you leave me?"), at others ("The driver of the other car killed my dad."), at God, himself or herself.

Anxiety and fear: afraid of being left alone, worrying they will get the same illness as the person who died, possible fear of being hurt in the same way their loved one was; if a parent drowned, they may be afraid to go swimming.

Assumption of characteristics or roles of the deceased: "Do I look like Tommy?" "I'll take care of the family now that Daddy is dead."

Bodily distress: Tightness in throat or chest, loss of appetite, loss of energy, stomachaches, sleeping problems, headaches, etc. Some may worry that they have the same illness/disease that the person who died had.

Denial: "He will come back."

Depression: helplessness, lethargy, apathy, and withdrawal.

Guilt: Children learn early that negative things happen when you are "naughty." Some children may believe that they somehow "caused" the death of a loved one because they misbehaved or because they argued with that person. Children who may have resented the upcoming birth of a sibling may feel responsible if the baby dies. They need constant reassurance that they are not responsible for the death.

Idealization of the deceased: "Mommy was perfect." "Daddy would have let me do this." "Joey was good at everything."

Panic: "Who will take care of me now?" "What if something happens to Mommy now?" "How will we get money to live?" Provide children with the answers to these questions whenever possible. Some children express fears about going to school and leaving a surviving parent alone. Children need constant reassurance that they are loved and will not be abandoned.

Regression: Occasionally some children may regress to younger behavior patterns such as thumb sucking and bed-wetting.

Sadness and loneliness.

School problems: It is not uncommon for children who are grieving to have difficulty concentrating on schoolwork. Some "acting out" may also occur as children attempt to deal with grief, especially anger. A counselor, psychologist, or supportive teacher can be a great asset at this time.

Text provided by:
Caring Connections
A Hope and Comfort in Grief Program
University of Utah Health Sciences Center Caring Connections is sponsored in part by: The Ben B. and Iris M. Margolis Foundation.

Related Resources

Children's Grieving

Katie Couric gives a helping hand to kids and parents grappling with death.

Letting Children Share in Grief »
A New York Times article about the changing attitudes toward grief and children.

Talking To Children About Death »
Talking to children about death is never easy, but this guide provides help that can be adapted to your situation.