By Jaclyn Durnil, MSW, January 15, 2019 –

Telling a child that someone has died can be difficult. Most children are aware of death, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they understand it.

Children may have seen someone die on television or in a movie, or some of their friends may have lost a loved one.

Experiencing grief can be a confusing and scary process for kids.  Grieving is a set of emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and physical reactions that can vary depending on the individual and the nature of the loss.

During the grieving process children may have a difficult time processing the actual event and coping with the loss of the loved one. One of the primary feelings can be fear – fear of not knowing what can happen in the future or fear of the unknown.

Some children might have a more difficult time with the grieving process. It’s very important to be patient and understanding. Long-term denial of death or avoiding grief can be unhealthy for children. Grief can easily resurface and cause more severe problems.

Children experiencing grief may exhibit these types of behaviors:

  • Changes in sleep or eating patterns
  • Regression to younger behaviors, such as separation anxiety
  • Expressing a desire to be with the deceased person
  • Lack of interest in playing with friends
  • Changes in grades or school behavior
  • Loss of interest in activities that once excited them

Children are constantly learning and growing and may revisit the grief process several times. Events such as birthdays, graduation, holidays, etc. may be difficult for children at times.  There is no “normal” period of time for someone to grieve.

Simply being present and attentive to a child who is grieving will help as they express their feelings.  At times children may worry about how their parents or caregivers are adjusting. Children may find it safer and easier to talk with someone else such as a teacher, friend, Youth First Social Worker in their school, etc.

No one can prevent a child’s grief, but simply being a source of stability and comfort can be very helpful.  Very young children often do not understand that death is a permanent thing and may they think that a dead loved one will eventually come back.

For many children, the death of a pet will be their first experience with grief. They build a connection with their pet that is very strong, and when they no longer have that bond, it can be extremely upsetting. It is important to let the child grieve for their pet instead of immediately replacing the pet with a new animal.

During that period is an opportunity to teach the child about death and how to deal with grieving in a healthy and emotionally supportive way.  At times, children may seem unusually upset as they are unable to cope with grief, which can lead to adjustment disorder.

Adjustment disorder can be a serious and upsetting condition that some children develop after going through a difficult event. If a child is not recovering from a loss in a healthy way, it is important to consult with your child’s doctor.