Tips for Helping Children and Adolescents in Grief

Mary Tousley’s “Grief Healing” Blog
Adapted From 

Moving in and out of grief is natural for youngsters, and the symptoms of grief may come and go, varying in intensity. Their response will depend on the knowledge and skills available to them at the time of the loss. Having had less prior experience with crisis and its consequences, their repertoire of coping skills is simpler, their capacity to confront the reality of loss more limited and their ability to find meaning in life’s crises less mature. If surprised or embarrassed by the intensity of their grief, they may try to hide it or disguise it. Parents, relatives, teachers and friends are wise to watch and to tune in to their children and adolescents, to listen to them, be there for them and if unsure of what’s going on, to ask! More than anything else, children need their parents and the other adults in their world to be honest with them. They need accurate, factual information, freedom to ask questions and express their feelings, inclusion in decisions, discussions and family commemorative rituals, stable, consistent attention from their caretakers, and time to explore and come to terms with the meaning of their loss.

  • Recognize that death and loss are natural parts of living. Shielding children from grief is futile and gives them no role models to learn healthy, normal coping behaviors.
  • Be open and meticulously honest. Children know when adults are shading the truth. If children discover that you’ve distorted the truth or lied to them, they’ll have a great deal of trouble trusting you again.
  • First find out what the children already know or think they know about dying and death.
  • Validate feelings and encourage children to share their thoughts, fears and observations about what has happened.
  • Offer explanations that are age appropriate and at the child’s level of understanding. A child under age five needs comfort and support rather than detailed explanations, whereas a child over age five needs information that is simple, accurate, plain and direct.
  • Explain that in the circle of life, all living things will die someday and that death causes changes in a living thing.
  • Help children understand what “dead” means (that the body stops working and won’t work anymore) and that death is not the same as sleeping (that the sleeping body is still working, but just resting).
  • Don’t use confusing or misleading euphemisms such as “passed away,” “lost” or “gone on.” Such phrases imply the one who died is on a trip and will return, leave children feeling rejected or abandoned, or encourage them to go searching for the individual or hold out hope for his or her return.
  • Explain how we might feel when someone dies: sad, mad, or confused, and we may cry sometimes. Let your children know that laughing and playing are still okay, too, and that you respect their need to be children at this sad and difficult time.
  • Relieve the child of any feelings of responsibility for the death; magical thinking may lead a child to conclude that something she or he did, wished or imagined somehow caused the death.
  • Avoid telling children that the dead person was so good or so special that God wanted him or her to be with Him in heaven. Children may become angry with God or fear that they (or you) will be chosen next.
  • Respect and encourage your children’s needs to express and share feelings of sadness. When you bring up the subject, you’re showing your own willingness to talk about it. When in doubt about your children’s thoughts and feelings, ask.
  • Don’t feel as if you must have all the answers; sometimes just listening is enough. Expect that young children will ask and need answers to the same questions over and over again.
  • Find and read some of the many wonderful stories and books written especially for children to help them better understand death and grief. (See, for example, Books for Children and Those Who Love Them.)
  • Don’t cut off their feelings by noting how well your children are handling their grief or how brave or strong they are. Let them see you upset and crying, which implies that it’s all right to cry for those we love and lose.
  • Children and adolescents may be reluctant to express their thoughts and feelings verbally. Encourage them to express their grief and preserve their memories in a variety of ways, including art, music, journal writing, story-telling and picture collecting.
  • Let children and adolescents plan and participate in commemorative family rituals.
  • Don’t deprive teens of their own need to mourn by pressuring them to “be strong” for a surviving parent, younger siblings or other family members.
  • Understand that teens don’t like to stand out and feel different from their friends; they want to belong, and normally turn to one another for support. But if a teen’s friends have never experienced the death of a loved one, it’s unlikely that they can fully understand what the bereaved adolescent is feeling or experiencing. Grieving teens do best when they’re helped to connect with other teens who’ve also experienced a death. (The Compassionate Friends now offers an online support group on Facebook aimed at teens who’ve lost a sibling: Sounds of the Siblings.)
  • Assure adolescents that conflict in relationships between teens and adults is a normal part of growing up, and offer them every opportunity to vent their feelings about their relationship with the person who died. Teens striving to separate from authority figures and find their own identity normally feel somewhat alienated from parents, siblings, and other family members, and if a loved one dies during this turbulent time, they can be left with feelings of guilt and unfinished business.
  • Give teenagers permission not to be grieving all the time. If they’ve expressed their feelings and talked about the loss with others (family, friends, teachers and other helpers) it may not be useful for them to focus further on their loss. It’s not disloyal of them to want to put their grief aside and enjoy life again.
  • Be on the alert for signs that a teen may need extra help (depression; drastic changes in sleeping or eating habits; falling grades; substance abuse; sexual acting out; deteriorating relationships with family and friends).
  • Children and adolescents will cope only as well as the adults around them; helping yourself will help your children.
  • Alert significant adults in your child or adolescent’s life (family doctor, teachers, school counselor, caregivers, neighbors, relatives, friends) about the death in your family. Ask their help in keeping a watchful eye on your youngster, and ask for their additional support and understanding during this difficult time. Consider enrolling your child or adolescent in a support program or summer camp for children and their families. Such groups are offered periodically throughout the year by hospices and other community agencies.