Helping Children Grieve

May 30, 2017

by Dr. Joseph Kahn, Mercy Kids president and pediatrician with more than 25 years experience

Three of my grandchildren lost their other grandfather who died recently following an illness. They experienced grief with this loss. While I have talked about loss with patients and families in the past, this time I observed firsthand how children of different ages deal with grief and thought about how we can help children through the grieving process.

It’s important to realize that children grieve differently than adults. They may go from crying to playing in a few seconds - play is a defense against feeling overwhelmed.  Children also often show anger towards the person they lost or feel guilt, mistakenly thinking their action somehow caused the loss. Very young children may show behavioral regressions such as resuming bedwetting.  With this in mind, it’s important to be developmentally appropriate with the child.

Encourage your child to express his feelings. Read a book with him about loss or death.  If your child can’t express his emotions with words, have him draw a picture or look at photos. Don’t overwhelm your child with too much information. He will let you know when he is ready for more details by asking, so answer those questions honestly when they’re raised. 

Be direct. For instance, don’t say “Grandpa went to sleep,” because your child may then become afraid of sleeping. Honesty allows your child to develop the coping skills she’ll need for life. Funerals can provide closure but not every child is ready for the experience.  If your child asks to go, prepare her for what she will see including adults expressing strong emotions.  Above all, don’t ignore your own grief.  As with everything else, your child will model your behavior and will learn from you that it’s OK to show emotions in healthy ways.

Mercy Kids Hospice and Palliative Care Dr. Mary Chismarich discusses how a child's grief will come and go throughout the stages of their lives.

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