Helping a child through grief and loss.

When a family experiences a loss, it’s often the youngest members who suffer most. Overwhelmed with their own sense of loss, parents may not be able to address their children’s grief, or know where to turn for resources. In fact, the National Alliance for Grieving Children found that more than one in 20 young Americans lose a parent or sibling before age 20 and the emotional upheaval in their lives can be severe.

With that in mind, the New York Life Foundation has formed partnerships with organizations such as the National Alliance for Grieving Children, as well as Comfort Zone Camp and Camp Erin, which host bereavement camps for children nationwide. You can find out more about these organizations and the resources they offer, along with personal stories, links to other local and national organizations, and more at AChildInGrief.com.

When you and your family begin the healing process, there are a few things you should keep in mind about childhood grief, as suggested by the National Alliance for Grieving Children’s website.

Grief is normal.

When a child experiences the death of someone who’s played an important role in their life, it’s normal to grieve, whether the relationship was caring and loving, or contentious and difficult. Mood changes or feelings of grief, even several years after the event, are a common part of adapting to a loss. It takes time to fully accept such a loss, and even after acceptance, a child may continue to miss that person in his or her own special way. In truth, children never "get over" a loved one’s death, but they can learn to live with the reality. Adults often need to be extra patient as a child adjusts to these changes

Children need to know the truth.

Often, we avoid words like “dead” or “die,” or we shade over the truth about how a person died with the goal of “protecting the children.” In doing so, though, we may actually be creating other problems. Children know more than we think they do, and by not telling them the truth, we risk leaving them to process complicated information on their own, rather than with the help and guidance of loving adults. Honest answers build trust, provide context and understanding, and allow children to feel comfortable approaching us with questions, because they know they can trust us to tell them the truth.

Each child’s grief is unique.

The way children experience and express their grief will vary, too. Reactions vary from sadness, anger, fear, guilt, and even relief. Some children have a need to talk about the person who died, some might not talk about the person at all. Others may express their grief through art, play, music, or writing. However a child responds, these expressions are their way of adapting. It is important to listen to children, meet them on their terms, and come to understand their behavior and responses to grief reactions

Grieving children often feel alone and misunderstood.

Many well-meaning adults avoid talking about the deceased person in fear that doing so will exacerbate a child’s grief. This may make some children feel that talking about or even expressing their grief is somehow not acceptable. In addition, children often feel as if they are alone in experiencing this kind of loss, even though there might be friends who have also experienced a death. Adults should provide opportunities for children to acknowledge their grief, and let them know that it’s normal to feel this way. When children can share their feelings with family, friends, and peers, they don’t feel as isolated and, in turn, fare better than they would if they felt alone.

Children will experience grief at different times and throughout their lives.

In time, as children have opportunities to express their grief, tell their stories, share their memories, and process what this experience means to them, they may find that the intensity of their feelings wanes, but grief is a lifelong journey, and children often experience their grief on different levels and at different times. Getting a driver’s license, scoring a touchdown, graduating from high school—even these “good” experiences may bring back feelings of grief, and it’s important to recognize that this is normal. Grief has no time limit, and may even extend into adulthood when they have children of their own. Allowing children to openly share their feelings can normalize this experience and help them find ways to deal with feelings that will be with them throughout their lives.

Grief can encourage growth.

A sense of personal growth is often a byproduct of grief. Many children have reported that they are more compassionate toward others, value relationships with friends and family on a new level, or experience a greater sense of appreciation for life after losing someone. It is important to note that personal growth does not diminish the sense of loss a person feels, nor does it imply that someone’s death was a good thing, but it can be a positive outgrowth of the grieving experience.

Grieving children feel less alone when they are with peers and adults who understand what they’re going through.

More important than any education, information, or advice, we should allow children who are grieving to connect with other children going through the same thing. When children have the opportunity to interact with like-minded peers, they feel less alone. It is also important for children to have adults in their lives who can provide a safe environment—one that is stable, teaches resilience, and encourages accountability, while allowing them the freedom to express themselves and their grief. Research has shown that one of the top indicators of how well children will respond after the death of a significant person in their lives is the type of relationship they have with the surviving adults in their lives, and how well these adults cope with their own grief.

Knowledge is power.

Remember, you are not alone. There are many resources available to help you cope. A simple internet search can provide a wealth of resources to help support grieving children and their caregivers.

The full article, as well as a PDF that you can download, are available at the National Alliance for Grieving Children’s website.

Talk it through with an expert.

We're here to help.

get started
Further Reading