Grief and Loss- Children

How do children experience grief? 

Big losses, from the loss of a favourite toy to the death of someone close, can result in a child experiencing many different thoughts and feelings. This is grief. Children will grieve for many different reasons.  They may grieve the death of people or pets who are close to them.  They might also grieve changes such as separation from parents or caregivers, illness, and the changing of schools or neighbourhoods.  

Children do not grieve like adults. Some children express their grief through behaviours such as regression, anger, loss of confidence or an increased need for affection.  Other children may try to be on their best behaviour. Grief is often shown in physical ways such as headaches, stomach aches or difficulty sleeping.  

What children understand and how they deal with a loss depends on their stage of development: 

  • Children under 10 might be afraid of getting sick and dying.  If a parent dies or is dying, they might worry that the other parent will die too.  
  • Children over 10 realize what is going on but might not be comfortable to talk about it. 
  • Children might not know the words to tell you how they feel, and their behaviour might change because they are having a hard time dealing with the loss.   

If you are worried that a child's symptoms are severe, or that they have lasted too long, speak with your family doctor or other medical professional.  

Talking about Death and Dying 

It can be hard to talk to a child about death or someone who is dying.  Most people want to protect children from what is happening.  It is helpful to talk to children about death and dying before they experience the death of someone important to them.  Death is part of our lives on many levels.  Children are exposed to death through movies, storybooks and from insects dying.  Use day-to-day activities as occasions to talk about the natural cycle of life and death. This will help children understand what death is and helps to prepare them for potential loss.   

Talk to children in an open and honest way about death and dying. Children are often able to feel or see that something is going on; do not hide it from them. 

Some other tips include:

  • Encourage them to talk about their thoughts and feelings.  Tell them that it is okay to feel happy, even though they are grieving. 
  • Tell children that a loved one is dying.  Tell them the truth and listen to what they are saying.  Give them time to ask questions and to share their feelings. 
  • Avoid using words such as: "passed away", "gone to heaven" or "sleeping"; these words might confuse them. Use the real word 'death' or 'dying'. 
  • Remind children that sick people do not always die. 
  • Tell children that what they are feeling is normal and it is okay to cry. Help them to show their feelings by talking, painting, coloring, using puppets and music. 
  • Help children to feel safe and secure.  Try to keep children's routines the same as before.
  • Ask children to contribute to the funeral and/or burial planning and selection of memorabilia items. Some children are willing and want to be part of the funeral or celebration of life ceremony.

Death, Religion and Culture 

Different beliefs about death and dying as well as different traditions for funerals and burials are seen across religions and cultures.  The above information is meant to give you general guidance when dealing with a death or loss.  Reaching out to your faith community for support may also be helpful to you and your family.  

For more information on how to talk to children about death and to support children who are grieving, visit

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