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Children and Grief

Children and Grief

Growing up is an ongoing process of change that can involve loss. Starting childcare, school, sleeping over at a friend’s house, changing classes and teachers, or losing a pet, a friend or a family member, all bring new challenges and new learning. Depending on the support children receive and how these early losses are dealt with, children can learn to manage and cope with the losses that will happen throughout their lives.


Children grieve, and grief can happen at an early age, but not in the same way as adults. Children are likely to show their grief in less direct ways than adults. Children move in and out of grief. One day they will seem to be fine and another day they will not manage so well.


Children often have more needs during times of loss, which can lead to demanding behavior as they try to get closeness, care, information, reassurance and support from adults. The experience of loss affects each child differently. The child's age, emotional maturity, the circumstances of the loss, and the 'connectedness' with the person or whatever the child has lost are important factors. It is important to look at each child individually and work out what will best help that child.

When Children Grieve

Some of the losses experienced by children are the same as those for adults:

  • When a parent dies or goes away.

  • When parents separate or a family breaks-up.

  • Loss of a friend or friendship.

  • ​Not wanting to separate, being clingy, wanting to be near adults.

  • Loss of memories due to fire or flood.

  • Something that seems small to adults but is big for children, e.g. their favorite stuffed animal.

  • Death of a grandparent.

  • Moving house or changing schools.

  • Long periods of separation from a parent.

  • Being the in hospital.

  • Having a disability.

  • Loss of a pet.

  • Loss of culture

  • Loss of homeland when moving to a new country.

Children's Understanding of Loss


Preschool Children


  • In the years before school, children generally don't understand that death is permanent.

  • They feel grief when they lose someone close to them.

  • The impact of the loss may be greater in the early years because they don't really understand what is happening.

  • They don't understand what is real and what is not real, and they may believe that their own wishes caused the person they loved to go away.

  • Losing someone who cares for them is a major stress that takes time and care to overcome.

  • In a way, it is like losing a part of themselves.

  • Young children don't have the words to express feelings and will show their feelings in the way they act.

  • They may be more clingy and needy or develop problems separating from you.

  • Children can be very kind to others who are unhappy and try to comfort them and then they need to go on playing again.

Early Years of School

  • Children are beginning to learn that death is permanent.

  • They begin to realize that when someone dies there is no coming back, but they may ask what has happened many times over so that they can understand.

  • Some children feel responsible for the death or separation and think it was because they were naughty.

  • They may also be worried about who will look after them--if they have lost a parent, they may worry about losing the other parent as well.

  • They may be very matter-of-fact in the way they talk about death and want lots of information, such as what happens to the body.

  • They may not know what it is they are feeling or know the words to say how they feel but you will see it in their behavior and play. 

  • Times of Family Loss Are Times of Particular Stress on Children.

  • The adults who love them may not be available to support the children if the adults are very upset themselves.

  • There are strange situations to cope with, e.g. funerals or moving.

  • People around them act differently, looking sad, crying, not keeping to routines, or acting like everything is fine when it isn’t.

  • Children might be asked to be different, e.g. to be quiet, to be helpful, to be good.

  • They are not sure what to think or do.

  • When a parent dies, children need to feel (with caring acts and words) that they will not be abandoned.


How Children Show Their Grief 

Young children usually don't have the words to talk about their feelings in the way that adults do. They may not even really know what they feel. Some of the ways they show grief may be:

  • Physical pain such as stomachaches or headaches.

  • Sleeping problems, bad dreams.

  • Eating problems, eating too much or too little.

  • Being destructive; temper tantrums.

  • Acting like a younger child.

  • Angry play or playing the same thing over and over.

  • Being unhappy and blaming themselves.

  • Tendency to think the person who has gone is perfect.

  • Being easily upset.

  • "Switching off," acting as if they haven't taken in what has happened.

  • Acting more like an adult. 


Next: Teens and Grief

Developmental Ages and Possible Reaction
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