Healing Little Hearts: Helping Kids Grieve
by Amy Scholten, MPH
When a family member or beloved pet dies, kids feel the loss as deeply as adults. How can you help children grieve?
Some families try to push kids to feel better. They urge a child to just smile or get involved in activities. This can do more harm than good. Just like adults, children need to go through the grief process. When they are not allowed to grieve, it can lead to depression and unhealthy behaviors.
Here are some steps to help kids grieve in a healthy way.
Let Kids Grieve Like Kids
Children grieve in different ways than adults. For example, children grieve in spurts. They can only tolerate strong feelings for a short time. As a result, they may go from playful to very sad in just minutes. Do not judge or criticize them for this. Allow them to feel all of their feelings in their own way.
Let your children know that they can talk to you. Check in with them often. However, do not force children to talk or share feelings. Let them do it when they are ready.
Help Kids Identify Their Emotions
Children usually do not have much experience with grief. They may feel sad, angry, fearful, and helpless. But they may not be able to express these feelings with words. It helps when an adult gives names to what the child is feeling.
Also, let children know that it takes time to feel better after a loved one dies.
Give Age-Appropriate Information
Consider the child's age when talking about death. But whatever you do, tell the truth at all times.
Look for Support Systems
Look for children's programs for support. Contact your child's school, a local hospice, church, or college for referrals. Your child's doctor can also advise you on how to talk to your child.
Expect Your Child to Have Setbacks
Grieving kids may start acting younger than they are. This is especially true for younger kids. For example, they may go back to thumb sucking or bedwetting. Extra attention can help your child feel more secure.
Be Aware of Danger Signs
Common symptoms of grief are:
These are normal grief symptoms. However, if they are severe or lasting, there may be a problem. Call the child's doctor if symptoms worsen or do not get better after a month or two.
Be Careful When Talking About Death
Adults often try to shield a child from the reality of death. It is important to be careful with what you say.
Saying Fluffy "went to sleep" may make a child afraid to go to sleep at night. They may be afraid that they will not wake up. Some phrases may be hard for young children to understand. Examples are phrases like "going to be with God" and "the angels took her away." Use them only if you are sure your child understands them.
Do Not Be Afraid to Show Your Own Grief
A loss for your child likely means a loss for you, too. It is okay show your own grief. In fact, a family cry can be a great way to bond with your children. You can cry and share feelings and memories together. Have the children draw pictures or tell stories about the person or pet who died.
When children know it is okay to feel sad, it can help them feel better.
Do Not Expect Kids to "Get Over It"
Grief is is different for every person. Some children may take longer to heal than others. Others experience more ups and downs, and that is okay.
American Psychological Association
Mental Health America
Canadian Mental Health Association
Canadian Psychological Association
Death and grief. Kids Health—Nemours Foundation website. Available at: https://kidshealth.org/en/teens/someone-died.html. Accessed June 24, 2021.
Depression in children and adolescents. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/depression-in-children-and-adolescents. Accessed June 24, 2021.
Grief and children. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychology website. Available at: https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Children-And-Grief-008.aspx. Accessed June 24, 2021.
Grief. Sesame Street website. Available at: https://sesamestreetincommunities.org/topics/grief/. Accessed June 25, 2021.
Helping children cope with grief. Child Mind Institute website. Available at: https://childmind.org/guide/helping-children-cope-grief/ Accessed June 24, 2021.
Last reviewed June 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
Last Updated: 6/25/2021
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