Certified Interfaith Pastoral Counseling, Coaching and Trauma Relief Service

Children, Young Adults And Grief
Children and Grief

Significant loss can diminish a child's fundamental security and trust. This trust may need to be rebuilt and this takes time. Grieving children will often look for reassurance.

Children do not always have the words to talk about what they are experiencing. They often express feelings of 'sad, bad, mad' through their behavior. Usually they are not being naughty, rather, they are saying, 'I am missing mommy, I am scared, I don't 

understand what is going on.'

It is important to check out these feelings and to talk about them. Remember that children learn from adult behavior and seek permission from adults. This kind of communication can help to strengthen family bonds and reduce individual isolation.

'If my daddy has died that means mummy can die too and who will look after me?' Sometimes children become, 'little mum' or 'little dad' and assume adult responsibilities. It is important to acknowledge changes that have happened in the family as a result of the loss and to work out appropriate tasks. Grieving children still need to experience being children.

Play is natural to children. It helps children regain a sense of control and mastery. It is a safe way of giving expression to what is happening 'within'. It is a way to express all kinds of feelings. Play offers adults the opportunity to talk with children about safe ways of expressing 'sad, mad and bad.'

Children's Concepts of Death

Children tend to say things directly, simply and clearly and their stage of development influences their understanding of death. There are three concepts that are important for children to grasp:

  • Death is irreversible and final; it is not 'a trip' from which they will return.
  • Death brings about non-functionality - life and body functions stop, the person is not asleep.
  • Death is inevitable - everyone will die some time.

Most children understand these concepts by the age of 9 years. Studies indicate that children's understanding of death is related to age, verbal ability and cognitive development. Children who are bereaved before the age of seven are likely to come to a partial understanding of them earlier. It is important to avoid using euphemisms such as 'sleeping forever' or 'left us...' as these phrases cause confusion for children.

Common Grief Responses in Children Behavior

Being more dependent on parents, clingy, not wanting to go to school, feeling sick more often, wanting to sleep with parents, needing extra help with tasks normally done alone, withdrawal. There may be themes of death in their stories or play.


Shortened concentration span, confusion, difficulty in making decisions, nightmares, lack of self-esteem.


Disbelief, numbness, sadness, disorganisation, panic, helplessness, anger, guilt, fear, desire to be an innocent child again, anxiety about others dying.


Headaches, tiredness, stomach aches, lack of energy, hyperactivity, restlessness, nervousness, appetite changes, sleeping changes.


Why did this happen? Where is Mommy now? Where is heaven? What do you do there? How is God looking after Daddy?

The Grieving Child at School

Meet with the child's teacher and talk about what has happened. It is important that:

  • The teacher has correct and appropriate information about the death.
  • The child's class is appropriately informed and that a decision is made about who will do this and when. The child may want or need to have a say about this. This gives some sense of control and safety.
  • The teacher puts in place ways of supporting the child if distressed e.g. phoning the parent and/or taking the child to a quiet place in the school.
  • There is regular contact with the teacher to check perceptions about the child, to share ways of ongoing support for the child and to inform the teacher of any significant occasions that might be coming up.

Ways of Supporting a Grieving Child:

  • Provide a safe space
  • Have a regular routine
  • Be consistent
  • Be honest
  • Be reassuring
  • Give adequate and appropriate information
  • Include and involve the child in appropriate decision making and in what is happening
  • Acknowledge feelings and give support when they are overwhelming
  • Provide opportunities to remember, create a memory box and make a memory book, draw, paint, make a collage, write stories, poems, collect photos
  • Prepare for special occasions - birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Mother's Day, Father's Day holidays.
Young People and Grief

Grief is a universal experience. It is a natural response to a loss. However, it can also be a difficult experience particularly during adolescence when there are a great deal of other changes occurring.

Adolescence is an important transitional phase. It is an exciting and complex stage of the life span. Behavior, social, cognitive, emotional, physical and spiritual development and growth are in rapid process. Understanding and grappling with issues related to identity, independence and peers takes on a natural urgency for young people during this time. Coming to an awareness and acceptance of one's changing body and mind and pushing the boundaries to experiment with dress, hairstyles, peer groups, drugs and alcohol are a part of working out belonging and values.

Grief is a universal experience. It is a natural response to a loss. However, it can also be a difficult experience particularly during adolescence when there are a great deal of other changes occurring.

Grief is a process that each person experiences in a unique way. The following factors influence how grief is experienced:

  • What was the relationship with the person who died?
  • What are the circumstances surrounding the death?
  • How has emotional distress been managed in the past?
  • What is the support network?

During adolescence, grief has the potential to accelerate or inhibit development. Young people can often feel overwhelmed and confused by the intensity and range of feelings they are experiencing. Their limited life experience may not prepare them to handle intense feelings in safe ways.

Many young people feel conflicted about seeking support from their parents as they are also striving for independence. They may feel alienated from peers and struggle to concentrate at school. These factors can create vulnerability, which may lead to isolation, confusion and increased risk-taking behavior.

Common Grief Response Behavior

Tears, intolerance of others, mood changes, disjointed conversations, resentment, restlessness, erratic decision making.


Isolation, withdrawal, abusing drugs/alcohol, risk-taking behavior.


Confusion, sense of unreality, forgetfulness, racing mind, poor concentration.


Numbness, sadness, anxiety, guilt, fear, helplessness, mood changes.


Change in appetite, change in sleeping, tiredness, headaches, colds, nausea.


Why me?, loss of meaning, questioning faith, challenging beliefs, desolation, searching for understanding.

Ways of Supporting a Bereaved Young Person

  • don't put a limit on the process of healing. Be available some time down the track.
  • sit quietly with the young person while he/she talks, cries or is silent.
  • make opportunities to share memories or look at photos of the person who has died.
  • acknowledge and believe the young person's pain and distress whatever the loss - large or small.
  • be aware of your own grief and/or feeling of helplessness.
  • reassure the person that grief is a normal response to loss and there is no wrong or right way to grieve.
  • don't panic in the absence or presence of strong emotional responses.

Living with the Experience of Grief

The following are some creative ways which may assist in living with the experience of grief:

  • write a letter to the person who has died or make a card and add a message
  • create images that express something of your experience - have a go at using clay or paints, do a drawing or make a collage
  • make a CD of songs that are meaningful
  • talk to people who have known the person who has died
  • make a memory book about the person who has died. Include photos, poems, sketches, qualities, sayings, stories
  • prepare for special days and holidays. Christmas, birthdays and anniversaries can be difficult times. Plan a visit to the cemetery, light a candle or maybe spend some time at the deceased person's favorite place. Keep a journal. Fill it with your thoughts and memories. Take time to reflect on your journey.

According to the Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent Suicide, important risk factors for attempted suicide in youth include depression, alcohol or other drug use, and aggressive or disruptive behaviors.  Suicidal feelings and depression are treatable mental disorders, and as we come to understand the interaction between pre-existing emotional conditions, family influence and environmental risk factors, teenagers and young adults who show suicidal behavior can be helped and tragic actions prevented.

Warning Signs of Depression and Suicidal Behavior:

  • A marked personality change such as exhibiting angry actions or rebellious behavior, or withdrawal from friends and activities
  • A change in eating or sleeping patterns
  • Involvement with drugs or alcohol or other risky behavior, such as reckless driving
  • An overreaction to a recent humiliating experience, such as a breakup
  • Difficulty in concentration and a decline in the quality of academic work
  • Persistent boredom and/or lethargy
  • Unusual neglect of physical appearance
  • Complaints of physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomachaches, and fatigue
  • A pattern of giving away or throwing away possessions
  • Preoccupation with death in writing, songs or poems
  • Intolerance of praise or rewards
  • Increase in comments such as “I can’t take it anymore” or “Nobody cares; I wish I was dead.”

Other Recommended Resources:

1-800-SUICIDE lists state and local hotline numbers to call for help, including advice for those contemplating suicide. Web site: http://suicidehotlines.com

American Association of Suicidology - Web site: www.suicidology.org

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention - Web site: www.afsp.org

National Institute of Mental Health - Web site: www.nimh.nih.gov

National Mental Health Association - Web site: www.nmha.org

Suicide Prevention Resource Center - Web site: www.sprc.org

If you are in crisis, 
call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Note:  This page is for information purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical or mental health advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified provider, prior to making any decision about your health.