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Children and Grief

How Children React to Grief

In general, children grieve differently than adults. A parent's death can be particularly difficult for small children, affecting their sense of security or survival. They may be confused about the changes they see, especially if well-meaning adults try to protect them from the truth or from others' displays of grief.

How a Child Grieves

Unlike adults, children have limited abilities to experience intense emotions. So, grieving children may:

  • Show emotions very briefly, or in spurts
  • Exhibit new behaviors
  • Play games about death

No two children respond in the same way to the death of a loved one.

What Determines a Child's Reaction?

Children at different stages of development have different understandings of death. The strength and type of reaction depends upon the child's:

  • Age
  • Personality
  • Stage of development
  • Earlier experiences with death
  • Relationship with the person who died
  • Surroundings and situation

Other factors that affect how children grieve: How the adults around them cope with stress and grief, and whether or not children get a chance to share their feelings. 

Your Child's Questions About Death

Your child may ask these questions or merely think them; you may need to provide answers and reassurance several times throughout the grieving process.

  • Did I cause the death to happen? Children often think they have magical powers. They may worry that because they have said or thought "I wish you were dead," their thought caused the death.
  • Is it going to happen to me? When a child experiences a death of any type, they may think the death could have been prevented or that they same thing might happen to them.
  • Who is going to take care of me? Children depend on parents and adults for care and support and need comfort.

Helping Your Child Cope

Coping with a child's grief puts added strain on a bereaved parent or caretaker. It's important to:

  • Be open and honest
  • Take extra time to talk about the death
  • Use direct language and accurate words
  • Provide reassurance
  • Involve the child in planning for and participating in memorial services or funerals
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