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Helping Children through the Grieving Process

When a tragedy occurs, processing grief and facing changes to family life can be overwhelming to everyone. For the surviving loved ones and adults, it is important to offer support and hope to children. Knowing how children may react when coping with loss can help everyone through the grieving process.

Understanding How Children Grieve

Grief can affect how children express their feelings, relate to others, learn and process information, and behave. Children may comprehend and react to loss differently throughout the grieving process based on their age group. They may experience a range of responses in the short-term, with common responses including:

  • Shock or detachment. Children may seem like they are not upset, which can be a sign of shock. Distancing themselves from their feelings may be a way to ward off pain.
  • Regression. Kids may act younger than their age or cling more to the surviving parent. For example, they may talk like a baby or occasionally wet the bed.
  • Acting out. Kids who misbehave may be expressing anger or sadness. Acting out may help them feel in control.
  • Lack of acceptance. It can be hard for kids to believe or accept the loss. They might continue to ask the same questions repeatedly or talk about the person who died like they’ll be coming back.
  • Feelings of guilt. Younger children may worry that they caused a parent’s death because they were once angry with them. Older children may feel survivor’s guilt.
  • Sadness and depression. Children may struggle to feel positive about themselves or their surroundings.

These feelings or behaviors generally get better with time, however, if they persist your child may be experiencing more serious psychological health concerns, like depression. Other signs of serious concerns can include loss of interest in day-to-day activities, isolation from friends, trouble sleeping and loss of appetite. If you notice these signs or any lasting changes in your children, seek help from a psychological health professional.

What Can You Do as a Parent or Other Adult?

As your children react to the death of a parent or loved one, you might feel powerless to make them feel better. However, remember that children faced with loss need the love and support of the adults around them. It’s important to listen and respond patiently when your children are expressing any of the above feelings or behaviors. Additional tips include:

  • Try to get back to normal routines at home.  Children thrive on consistency. Maintain a consistent schedule for school activities and bedtime rituals. This can help kids establish security after a loss.
  • Refer to “death” directly when talking with kids. Avoid using confusing phrases such as “went to sleep.”
  • Be ready and accessible. Avoid pushing your child to talk. Instead, follow your child’s lead and stay open to talking over time as needed.
  • Notice your child’s behavior. If they act out, remember that it may be because of anger or sadness. Talk about how to express those emotions in other ways, like through drawing or writing.
  • Let children know that any feelings they may have are okay. Sadness, anger, guilt and even happiness are common as their lives keep moving.

While supporting your children may be your top priority, don’t forget to take care of your health, too. This will help you manage your stress and have the strength to be there for your family. Nourish your mind and body by eating well, getting plenty of rest, and exercising.

Reaching Out for Help

Mourning the loss of a loved one is painful, but you do not have to do it alone. In addition to reaching out to a psychological health professional, try building a support network. This may include other families with similar experiences, school officials or places of worship.

For 24/7 support, call the Psychological Health Resource Center at 866-966-1020 to speak with a trained health resource consultant or start a conversation on their live chat. You can also visit our “Seek Care” page to find available psychological health programs.

Additional Resources

Sources

Facts for Families: Grief and Children,” American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Last accessed on July 2, 2019.

Cozza, S.J., Fisher, J.E., Zhou, J., Harrington-LaMorie, J., LaFlair, L., Fullerton, C.S., & Ursano, R.J. (2017). Bereaved Military Dependent Spouses and Children: Those Left Behind in a Decade of War (2001–2011). Military Medicine, 182, e1684-91.

Kaplow, J.B., Layne, C.M., Saltzman, W.R., Cozza, S.J., & Paynoos, R.S. (2013). Using Multidimensional Grief Theory to Explore Effects of Deployment, Reintegration, and Death on Military Youth and Families. Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev. 2013 September; 16(3): 322–340.

When a Parent is Injured or Killed in Combat. Holmes A.K., Rauch P.K., Cozza S.J. (2013). The Future of Children.