When asked to write this blog about children and grief, I have to say I was a little overwhelmed because helping children deal with grief presents so many scenarios, circumstances and age-related factors. Grief is difficult enough for adults to navigate. Often parents/caregivers find themselves needing to help children at a time when they themselves are struggling to manage their own grief.

All ages experience grief, just in different ways. Grief is a natural process resulting from any significant loss or unwanted change, such a death, the loss of a personal relationship, or the loss of a routine or structure such as during a move or relocation. When a death or loss happens, it is important be open and honest about it. Obviously be age appropriate and not burden kids with details that could harm their relationships with the other parent or person, such as in the case of a divorce.

Young children, ages 0-4 years old are sensitive and experience grief of a death or divorce by those around them. Usually adults are grieving, thus the routines, structure and care they typically provide is affected. This is normal because the grieving parents that are trying to “hold it together” aren’t always able to be available emotionally or provide their normal caregiving. Routines may change, and the emotional climate surrounding the child is adversely affected. Children at this age look to those around them for comfort, care and role models. They easily pick up on the feelings and nuances of those around them – tuning into tone of voice, feelings, words and the environment around them. To them, this can be an unknown dynamic to the normal atmosphere which can feel scary. They may show signs and changes in eating, behavior, sleep habits or overall demeanor. Keeping routines and being comforting during these times help children to adapt and still feel safe and secure.

Children between 5-9 years old tend to use their imaginations to make sense of the world around them. They might feel guilty after the loss (divorce or death) because of something they may have thought or done. Talking about what happened in a very simple, reassuring and age-appropriate manner can assure them of their innocence. When explaining a death caused by sickness, it’s important to give clear information so they don’t “fill in the blanks” with their imaginations. Giving names to illnesses, such as cancer, is appropriate. Otherwise, if they only hear that their loved one “got sick and died,” then they can become fearful of all sicknesses. 

Often with older children, ages 10 to teens, there are a lot of intellectual thoughts and emotional feelings that are sometimes reserved for their head only. It is important for parents and caregivers to talk about feelings, even telling them about their own. Parents often mistakenly avoid talking about death or grief because they wish to spare the child from the pain and sadness. However, it is necessary for adults to reinforce that grieving and crying is OK and natural when life presents these painful moments. Parents don’t have to “fix it” when kids cry. It may be difficult, but the most important thing adults can do is be present with them when they open up and not try to take the grief away. Being there to walk through the process is best. Sometimes even crying with them is the right thing to do. This connects us as humans to be able to feel vulnerable with each other. A good cry is good for the soul.

Children ages 5 to teens also experience stress and anxiety during times of grief. Their normal eating, sleeping, socializing or overall behavior may change. School might become difficult, or they may talk about wanting to be with the deceased person. If this continues for more than a month or so and doesn’t seem to be getting better, it’s a good idea to talk with your child’s doctor and seek professional mental health counseling services that work with children. It is better to get help or advice before it becomes a harder issue.

Often people ask at what age children should go to funerals. Again, children under 5 years old are not intellectually able to process what might be happening. However, parents and caregivers know their children the best and what they can emotionally handle. Be especially mindful of the closeness of the relationship and the intellectual/emotional stage of the child, considering things like if it would be helpful for closure to view a loved one in casket, if they can handle the emotional atmosphere of the setting and if they are capable of discussing the situation when asked about their feelings or questions. The parent’s or caregiver’s own beliefs about what happens when people die should be discussed before talking to children, so children aren’t confused by different family views. Being ready to share beliefs and being able to answer children’s questions is important. Age appropriate books can sometimes be a good way of explaining death or loss, as well.

Lastly, when we have feelings that we don’t talk about, they can grow into an abyss of emotional trauma. But if we take those feelings and plant them to grow through telling stories and commemorating our loved one, then we are doing something positive with the grief instead of holding it inside. Commemorating can be done through stories, scrapbooks, drawing pictures, talking about funny times, doing something the person liked to do, decorating during holidays like they would, going places they went or eating something they loved to make or eat. Commemorating is a gift of honoring our loved one and bringing them into our everyday routine — remembering that they are worth remembering!

Paula Ruefli-Spears LMHC, MFT is an adjunct Teacher in Medaille’s master’s in marriage and family therapy program, where she teaches on ground graduate courses in Human Development and Child and Adolescent Therapy.  She earned her master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy and an Advance Certificate in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Medaille College.  Paula had an accomplished and extensive career in the early childhood development and business consulting field spanning over 30 years. She has managed and owned early childhood development and consulting businesses in both Australia and the USA.  Her insights and experience into the diverse dynamics of children and their families has been the motivation for her entire career. Currently, Paula works in a private practice and specializes in working with children, adolescents and families.