What is grief in children?

Grief in Children

Part one of What is grief?  shared a very personal account of grief.

In the second of our three part series investigating grief, one very experienced Celebrant looks at how children handle bereavement and explains how to be age appropriate when helping a grieving child.

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Golden rule of grief: be guided by the child

Children differ in their capacity to understand grief depending on their age and maturity.

Babies and small children lack the words for their grief but still feel it.

Toddlers and the under 5s will take time to form a consistent understanding of death. This means that they may swing back and forth between understanding and not understanding. Be prepared for this, and to answer the same questions over and over again until they have managed to internalise the truth of the situation.

Children aged 6 – 11 may seem to understand the language, but have very confused ideas about the reality of death, and may believe that they are to blame. This is true for all children facing the death of someone they love. They can become convinced on some level that if they had done something differently or been better behaved then their loved one would not have died. It is important not to dismiss their thoughts and feelings, but allow them to talk, and explain clearly what happened, making it clear that nothing the child did could have affected their loved one’s death.

Pre teens and teens need careful support which understands the child in them, but respects the adult who is emerging.

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Where to get help for bereaved children

It may help you to use books which explain death in age appropriate ways to help to support their understanding. A list is provided below.

Look for a bereavement charity locally. There are charities that specialise in supporting children and adolescents through play therapy and meeting other bereaved children.

There are also some great websites, but please be careful to research them first to see if they are suitable.

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Answer a bereaved child’s questions using plain language

Answer a grieving child’s questions honestly and avoid euphemisms. If you have a faith, then use the language of your faith to describe death.

A good guideline is to use simple, clear language, including the words dead and death because it has been found that children respond better to certainty. Please  avoid euphemisms such as ‘sleeping’, ‘gone away’ ‘passed over’, as children find these confusing.
For example, some children have even been known to avoid going to sleep in case they die too, or thinking that a parent has left town because the language hasn’t been clear.

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Value a bereaved child’s memories

Children will continue to grieve as they grow up. As they mature they may miss the person in different ways, and each age brings its own unique flavour to grief.

Making memory boxes and scrap books can be really useful, because the child can access them throughout their lives, drawing different levels of support and understanding each time.

Encourage children, if old enough. to record their thoughts on paper as a journal, or to write letters to their parent, or even to make videos/WhatsApp messages expressing their feelings.

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Utilise all the senses when grief counselling 

Even small babies grieve, but lack the words to explain their pain. It has been found that babies  bereaved in the womb could be comforted by being wrapped in their parent’s clothes. 

The smell of a parent or close relative is important, and many children like having an item of their clothing to cuddle.

Cushions or toys made from their parent’s clothes can be a valuable comforter – but please don’t wash them – or if you have to, then spray with the perfume/aftershave/fabric conditioner the child associates with the parent.

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When counselling children, listen, listen, listen

Listen. Listen again. And listen again. Children often talk in stream of consciousness – little clues to how they are feeling slip out when they are playing, or talking about something else.

Be aware of what they are saying and feeling and avoid the temptation to ‘cure it’ or solve it. Listen. Let the child speak. Mention their loved one regularly and naturally in conversation.

Children are often worried they will upset people, so let them know it is ok to share, talk and laugh, and also cry together.

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Celebrate and honour who the child is mourning

Mark anniversaries, but ask the children how they would like to do this – be led by them as much as possible.

With Christmas coming, ask the children how they want to include their lost loved one in the celebration – ideas can include setting a place, buying a present for them, writing a card to them, or posting on their Facebook, hanging a favourite bauble or visiting the grave.

Just taking time to remember together, accepting the pain of loss is a powerful step in a child’s grief.

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The author of this , Kate Mitchell, worked in Education for 30 years supporting children and families in the UK and abroad. During this time she trained with bereavement charities in order to be able to support bereaved children and their families. She is now a therapist and Celebrant working in the South East.

Kate recommends:

  • Helpful charities to support bereaved children
    This website lists many charities, local and national who can help you find the words.
  • Helpful books: age 1-8
    The Invisible string by Patrice Karst
    Tell me about Heaven, Grandpa rabbit by Jenny Album
    Badger’s parting gifts  by Susan Varley
    I miss you – by Pat Thomas
    Muddles, Puddles and Sunshine – (activity book) Diane Crossley
  • Helpful books: age 8 – preteen
    When someone very special dies – Maggie Heergard (activity book)
    Michael Rosen’s sad book – Michael Rosen
    Coping with death – Glitter moon press
  • Helpful books: teenagers
    Michael Rosen’s sad book – Michael Rosen
    Still here with me – teenagers and children on losing a parent – Susanne Sloquist
    The Salt Path – Raynor Win

What is Grief? Part 1

What is Grief – Abroad? Part 3

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