Chapter 5: Supporting children and youth
How children grieve
When I told them their uncle had died, they had a few questions. I told them we could talk about their uncle anytime they wanted. They cried for a few minutes, and then they ran off to play.
My daughter was angry that she wasn’t given the chance to say “goodbye.” I felt this anger and pain too.
Children have individual ways of experiencing and expressing their grief; there is no single right way. In your family, each child’s response may also depend on their own unique relationship with the person who died.
When children grieve, they do this very differently than adults. Below are some things to know about children’s grief. Click on each of the phrases below to read more.
Children are more likely than adults to express grief through actions and behaviours. The younger the child, the more difficult it will be for them to use words, and they are much more likely to express their feelings through play. You may also notice that a child regresses for a time, showing behaviours of a younger age.
Children often move back and forth between talking about a loss and playing, sometimes very quickly. This is a normal way that children cope. Different from adults, children might balance great joy and great sorrow in short periods of time. Just because a child is running and playing, it doesn’t mean they aren’t experiencing deep grief. When children do talk, it is not likely to be a big “tell-all,” and their questions may not come when you expect them.
In general, and regardless of age, most children will take their cues from the adults around them when responding to a death. More specifically, the reactions that you may see will depend on the child’s age and stage of development, their personality, and their relationship with the person who died. Remember that, like adults, each child has their own way of grieving. In addition, children grieve as they mature, which means that over time they may see their grief resurface.
What may help
- Maintain routines, limits, and expectations as much as possible to help your children feel safe and secure.
- Reassure them that even though you’re grieving, you’re still able to take care of them.
- Share with them the ways that help you calm and soothe yourself (e.g., spending time with friends and family, digging in the garden, going for a run, reading a good book). Help them to find age-appropriate ways to help calm and soothe themselves.
- If you are unsure about how your children are doing, consider a consultation with a children’s grief counsellor. Ask your physician about resources for grieving children in your area.
- Children may benefit from outside help and spending time with peers who are also grieving. This can take many forms, for example:
- Grief support groups
- Bereavement camps
- Counselling with someone who specializes in children's grief
- Finding a grief counsellor for yourself can help you with your own grief, which can also help your kids in theirs.