Dealing with Death

Children and Teens Grieve Differently

As a parent, your natural instinct is to protect your child from painful experiences. But when someone close dies, shielding your child from the difficult emotions that accompany grief is not what’s best for them.

The most loving thing we can do for a child who is grieving is be a guide and teach our children about the realities of death. It’s important to provide age-appropriate support and guidance to maneuver through the rough course of grieving an important loss.

Children and teens respond to death differently than adults. Unfortunately these differences can lead to the mistaken belief that a child is not grieving the loss and that he or she does not need help with understanding and mourning.

Children and teens grieve and process their emotions sporadically, needing to take breaks from unfamiliar intense emotions, which explains why a child may not appear to be deeply affected by the death. They simply do not have enough life experience with understanding death or processing the powerful reactions—anger, sadness, fear, denial, guilt, regret—that accompany grief. It can be confusing and frightening; without help from caring adults, unresolved grief can trouble a young person for many years.

Important Differences about Grieving for Children and Teens

Children do not have a developed understanding of the finality of death. Adults have a clearer understanding of the finality of death; children have not had as many life experiences and cognitively cannot understand the reality of death the way adults do.

  • What Parents Can Do: Regardless of your child’s age, he or she will probably need repeated conversations about what death means. Younger children will need gentle confirmation that the loved one will not return.

[Related: Coping with Loss: 115 Helpful Websites on Grief & Bereavement.]

Children have less experience with difficult, intense emotions. The death of a loved one can trigger a roller coaster of intense emotions for adults as well as children, but children do not have the life experience to help them comprehend the speed, intensity, and changeability that comes with grief. Nor do they have an understanding that the pain will not last forever.

  • What Parents Can Do: Tell your child that mixed up, rapidly changing feelings are a common thing during times of loss and assure them that, with time, it will become less intense and less frequent. Assure them that, while things may be changed permanently, life will settle down and he or she will feel normal, and even happy again.

Children grieve sporadically and must take breaks from grieving. The harsh reality of death is hard for children to handle and they will often focus on pleasant things that are familiar and comforting. This doesn’t mean they are not experiencing pain; they simply need breaks from it.

  • What Parents Can Do: Allow your child to take breaks from their grief while telling them that you know it does not mean they don’t have sad feelings about losing their loved one. Do be on guard and protect your child from judgments, dismissals, and criticisms that may come from others who interpret the emotional time-outs as uncaring, inappropriate, or unfeeling.

Children, if not honestly given information about the death, may imagine things much worse than what really has happened. Children don’t have practical knowledge about things surrounding death. By not sharing information and honestly answering questions about the death, what they imagine may be much worse, and more traumatizing, than what has really happened.

  • What Parents Can Do: Encourage your child’s questions about the death and ask what his or her concerns are about how the death will impact him or her. Answer the direct questions that are asked—when your child is ready to learn more, he or she will ask. It’s a lot to take in, and your child will need time to process the information. Also, it is okay to admit if you don’t know the answers and share that death is hard for adults as well. Additionally, children may not know the vocabulary surrounding death (ie. widow, casket, embalming, cremation, mortuary, estate, wake, obituary, hearse) and a great deal of anxiety may be relieved by explaining what unfamiliar terms mean.

[Related: Breaking Bad News to Children and Teens.]

Children cannot help with the practical details but they need to be a part the important rituals surrounding the death. Children will be able to accept and heal their grief better if they are included in creating and/or participating in the final rituals of the deceased loved one. Not being involved can rob them of being a part of facing and helping with the situation. Being included can foster a strong sense of closeness and pulling together as a family.

  • What Parents Can Do: Funerals give family and friends a way to offer love and support to one another. Children may be afraid about the funeral, so it is important to explain, in advance, the rituals. Funerals help adults and children continue the grieving process and help with the acceptance of the reality of the death.

Children are going through developmental stages themselves and grieving will reflect the characteristics of that stage. Preschoolers cannot understand “forever”, so parents will need to repeat the same information about the death many times. Younger school age children tend to have magical thinking and may believe that they could have prevented the death from happening. For adolescents, the death of someone close may trigger fear that other beloved adults may die. Teenagers, focused on becoming more independent, may push away caring adults, not understanding that no one should endure a loss alone.

  • What Parents Can Do: Frequent, honest conversations with children during the time of loss will help everyone in the family understand that “everyone grieves differently” and that the most important thing is that you will stay close and available for them for as long as it takes.

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1. Helen Fitzgerald, The Grieving Child, A Parent’s Guide (New York: Fireside Press Simon & Schuster, 2003).

2. Helen Fitzgerald, The Grieving Teen, A Guide for Teenagers and Their Friends (New York: Fireside Press Simon & Schuster, 2000).

3. Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., Healing Your Grieving Heart for Teens (Fort Collins, Co: Companion Press 2001).

4. Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., Healing Your Grieving Heart for Kids (Fort Collins, Co: Companion Press 2001).

5. Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., Healing a Child’s Grieving Heart: 100 Practical Ideas for Families, Friends and Caregivers (Fort Collins, Co: Companion Press 2001).