As a natural step in the journey of life, the death of a loved one is an experience all of us must face. Sadly, many children feel the pain of loss at a very early age.
It is estimated that 20% of children will have a close loved one die before that child’s 18th birthday and 1 out of every 20 children age 15 and younger will lose either one or both parents before adulthood."By understanding the tasks that childhood grief performs, we can better prepare ourselves as parents to be a force of love and support."
While we cannot prevent our children from feeling the pain of loss, we can better equip ourselves to help children cope during the grieving process.
By understanding the tasks of childhood grief, the warning signs that may indicate difficulty in processing that grief, and how we can help as adults, we can more fully prepare ourselves to be a positive and supportive force for our children during their grief journey.
The Tasks of Childhood Grief
While the pain of losing a loved one is profound, the grief that children experience does serve a constructive purpose. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, there are 8 key tasks that are performed during the process of a child’s grieving.
Accepting the reality and permanence of death
During a child’s grief journey, they may initially struggle with the realization that their loved one will no longer physically be present and that this is a very real and permanent change in their life.
Through a healthy grieving experience, a child, depending upon their age and developmental level, will develop an understanding of the permanence of death and how death impacts those who survive the deceased loved one.
Experiencing and coping with the feelings of loss
A loved one’s death is often among a child’s first experiences with feelings of loss. While loss can have a profound impact on the life of anyone, especially a child, the grief that follows serves an important role in teaching children how to cope and heal during periods of sadness.
Adjusting to life changes that result from the death
Following the death of a loved one, particularly a parent or other significant adult, a child will likely experience some form of change in their day-to-day life.
By experiencing this change, and learning how to adapt to life without the deceased loved one, children recognize how life may suddenly change, but also realize that they have the strength within themselves to overcome even the most challenging of life’s hurdles.
Developing new and deepening existing relationships
The death of a loved one, and the period of grief that follows, is a time where families, friends, and loved ones draw close to one another to offer mutual support and comfort. Through this experience, children learn the value of close, meaningful relationships and the healing they bring.
Furthermore, children who share their grief and discuss the challenges they face with their peers often forge new and lasting friendships through sharing these experiences. This is a vital task of a child’s grief journey, as it allows the child to recognize that many others care for their well-being and reinforces the value of having a supportive network of family and friends to lean upon during life’s most challenging times.
Appreciating life, investing in life-affirming activities
The loss of a loved one and the grief that follows serves as a powerful reminder of how precious life is. By recognizing how precious life is children begin to develop an appreciation for life, relationships, and all of the experiences we are privileged to have while living.
Maintaining an appropriate, continuous attachment to the deceased loved one
While the goal of a child’s coping with grief is to ultimately advance on a healthy and emotionally-strengthened path toward adulthood, the coping process does not mean that the child should seek to never think about their loved one ever again.
It is a natural step in a child’s grief journey to form and maintain a continuous attachment to his or her deceased loved one. As the child progresses throughout life, the cherished memories of their loved one — revisited through memorialization, remembering, or reminiscing — often become a wellspring of love, strength, and inspiration.
Developing a sense of meaning concerning death
For many children, developing a sense of meaning concerning death will include understanding why their loved one died.
As with any discussion concerning death with your child, you should never sugarcoat your answers, and should answer questions honestly, directly, and encourage open discussion surrounding any questions your child may have.
Continue on a healthy path of developmental growth toward adulthood
Ultimately, grief’s purpose is to be a teacher and to help children recognize their own strength. Though the loss of a loved one is tragic and can be one of life’s most overwhelming experiences, it is an experience that fosters the growth of internal strength, indomitable character, and the determination to move onward toward a successful and healthy life.
What Are the Warning Signs that a Child is Struggling with Grief?
Every child experiences grief differently. While some children may stride through the grieving process without any signal of long-term negative impact, others may be unable to process the complex emotions experienced during the grieving process.
When struggling with grief, children may exhibit some of the following behaviors that may inhibit daily functioning and signal that they are having a difficult time working toward healing.
Frequent nightmares about their loved one or about death in general
Guilt or self-blame about their loved one’s death
Avoidance of the fact that their loved one died, general emotional numbness
Increased irritability, bursts of sudden anger
Decreased concentration and/or lower grades.
Physical aches and pains
Hypervigilance concerning safety and health of loved ones
How Can Parents and Other Significant Adults Help Their Children in Grief?
The role of a parent or significant adult is paramount in helping children cope with grief and work towards healing. During this time, children are struggling to make sense of the trauma that has befallen them, and the support and love of an adult is key in helping them process their emotions.
Create a safe space for your child.
While grieving, children need to know and feel that they are in an environment of unconditional love and support. It is vital that children are able to communicate their feelings and ask the tough questions that they may have concerning a loved one’s death or the concept of death altogether.
When adults create and continually foster a supportive environment, children are empowered to understand their grief, cope with it, and ultimately progress toward a healthy adult life.
Understand that some regressive behaviors are normal.
While a child is grieving, it is completely normal for a child to regress into a pattern of behavior that they had previously outgrown. Wanting to sleep in bed with a parent, for example, is completely normal and shouldn’t be regarded as childish or immature.
Know that your child learns how to grieve from you and other adults.
When loss strikes a family, children observe and take note as to how their parents or other significant adults in their life work through grief. Patterned after what they have witnessed from the adults in their life, children begin to form their own coping mechanisms and use these when processing their grief.
Allow your child to revisit the loss.
As children process their grief, it is natural for them to revisit the loss — asking new questions, revisiting memories, and gaining new understanding as to how the loss has affected them.
As an adult, your task is to simply be there for them during these moments of mental and emotional revisiting. While you may not have all of the answers, your supportive and loving presence, and willingness to help your children work through the difficult emotions that may revisit them, is what is most important.
Allow yourself to grieve.
Remember that you are also grieving and that children often learn how they should grieve by watching how the significant adults in their life cope with grief. By healthily embracing your grief and working towards healing day by day, you allow your children to see that grief isn’t something to ignore and is a normal process of life.
Seek professional help.
If you feel that your child’s grief is having a prolonged, heavily-negative impact on their day-to-day life, reaching out to professional help is advised. While the loving support of family and friends is critical in a child’s coping with grief, the insight and unique perspective of a trained mental health professional is invaluable.
Remember that reaching out for professional help for your child — or for yourself — is never a marker of defeat or a sign of weakness. On the contrary, seeking help from a skilled mental health professional demonstrates an adult’s dedication to his or her child’s mental and emotional health and a willingness to help that child work toward lasting healing.
Being a Bastion of Support and Love for Grieving Children
The death of a loved one can be a devastating experience for children and it can be difficult for us, as adults, to not be able to provide our children with the answers they may seek about life and death.
We may not have all of the answers surrounding life and death, but by understanding the vital tasks that grief performs in the lives of our children, we can better prepare ourselves to be the bastion of love and support that they children need.
Join our Community
Stand alongside thousands of family caregivers, those in grief, and
medical professionals dedicated to excellence in end-of-life care.
- Stuber, Margaret L., Violet Hovsepian, and Mesrkhani. "“What do we tell the children?”: Understanding childhood grief." Western Journal of Medicine. Copyright 2001 BMJ Publishing Group, Mar. 2001. Web. 4 Jan. 2017.
- Bowlby, John, M.D. "Grief and Mourning in Infancy and Early Childhood ." The Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis Los Angeles, n.d. Web. 4 Jan. 2017.
- Himebauch, Adam, Robert M. Arnold, and Carol May. "Journal of Palliative Medicine." Grief in Children and Developmental Concepts of Death #138 Journal of Palliative Medicine, 1 Mar. 2008. Web. 4 Jan. 2017.