Children & Grief

When someone dies that a child has known, especially someone who is loved by him, the child should be told of that death by a person close to him.  Children must be told the truth and be sympathetically guided toward an honest understanding of its real meaning.

Authorities agree that it is not only correct to permit a child to go to a funeral but, from approximately the age of seven, the youngster should be encouraged to attend.  The child needs to participate with his family in offering his last respects to the deceased as well as to express in his own way love and devotion.  To shut him out of this experience is to deny him a significant and meaningful life experience that can have important consequences for his future emotional development.  If the child is unwilling, however, he should not be forced to attend a funeral or made to feel guilty because he “let the family down.”  In any event, children should not be spared knowledge about death.

Viewing is therapeutic for people regardless of age.  It is especially helpful for a child who has experienced the death of one loved.  Instead of fantasizing in his vivid imagination, with the body present, he is able to comprehend the real meaning of death.

When someone loved dies, the surviving children should be allowed to express their grief.  It is natural.  They loved him.  They miss him.  Don’t be afraid of causing tears.  They are like a safety valve.  Tears are not only natural and normal, but also therapeutic.  The worst thing possible is for the child to repress them.

To shut a child out of this experience of sorrow might be quite damaging to his personality.  To deprive him of a sense of belonging at this very emotional moment may well shake his security.

If a child is going to the visitation and/or to the funeral service, explain in advance some of the details.  Tell him what to expect if he is going to view the body.  Put him at ease by describing what will happen so he can better understand why it is being done.  It is sometimes well for the child’s first visitation to be with only a few persons especially close to him.  This will permit the child to react more freely and to verbalize his feelings and concerns.

The above information was copied with permission from literature available from the National Funeral Directors Association.



Several years ago, Amherst Middle School suffered a loss with the death of an eighth grade student.  It was a difficult time for many of the students.  The pain, confusion and need to grieve affected everyone.

This information was received in training from the Life and Death Transition Center and from Compassionate Friends.

A thought to begin with – We as adults cannot protect our children and young people from painful losses that are a part of life.  We are not Gods who can make everything right nor can we answer every question they put before us.

But we are human and there is much we can do.  With knowledge, compassion, and caring, we can help them heal, guide them through difficult waters, and plant the seed of a genuine inner strength that will serve them well throughout their lives.  We can be “present” in their   lives—not just intellectually, but emotionally as well—and in helping them grow, we will grow.

Children tend to express grief in their own ways of behaving.  They act out their feelings and emotions.  We cannot always know what they are thinking or feeling.  Take cues from their behavior.

All children react differently.  Withdrawal, aggressiveness, panic, anxiety, anger, guilt, fear, regression and symptoms of bodily distress are all signs of grief.  Be patient and understanding.

When children are grieving, they have shortened attention spans and may have trouble concentrating.  School work may be affected.  A child may attempt to deny feelings of anger, hurt and fear by repressing them.  Eventually, grief takes over and their feelings  leak out.  It may be months or even years before a child displays signs of the full impact of a death.

Bereaved children must reestablish a self-identity.  “Who am I ?” becomes a major concern.  Help them in their search.  A child’s perceptions of death change with age and experience.  The pre-school and kindergarten age child may see death as temporary.  The six-to-ten year old becomes aware of the reality and finality of death.  He may be curious about death and burial rituals.  By eleven, a child begins to perceive death on an adult level.

If a child seeks you out to talk, be available and REALLY  LISTEN.  Hear with your ears, your eyes and your heart.  TOUCH.  A warm hug says, “I know what happened and I care.  I am here if you need me.”  Face your own feelings about death.  Share your feelings with the child.  It’s okay to cry, to be sad or angry.  It is even okay to smile.

Be open and honest with your feelings.  Create an atmosphere of open acceptance that invites questions and fosters confidence and love.

Give the child your condolence – express your comfort and understanding, your willingness to be there if needed  (avoid expressions which close off communications like “It’s God’s will,”  “You’ll get over it,”  “I know just how you feel,” “Cheer up,” which confuse or anger the child, attempt to dismiss very real sorrow…)

Sit with the child, speak softly, touch hand or arm gently, perhaps sit silently, allow tears – allow the child to experience his feelings and cope with them.

If a child asks “Why?” feel free to say “I don’t know,” – then offer your presence, comfort, touch…

Encourage them to express their feelings and thoughts in spoken or written words, in a collage, a drawing, a song…

DO accept any question a child asks, even if it strikes you as grotesque.

DON”T tell a child not to cry or be sad.  Children grieve too.

DO listen to actions and feelings.  Children can’t always phrase their questions about death – especially a particular death – in words.

DON”T tell a child he or she takes someone’s place.  Human beings are unique and irreplaceable.

DO explain the physical changes wrought by death, especially for younger children.  Put special emphasis on the fact that the dead stop breathing-something no child can do very long.  And try the technique Harriet Sarnoff Schiff describes in “The Bereaved Parent” to explain that the dead can’t feel pain.  Tell the child to yank at a strand of hair.  That hurt because the root is alive.  But the hair itself is dead.  Holding the same strand of hair between two hands and breaking it in the middle doesn’t hurt at all.

Encourage children to express grief in all its forms.  Acknowledge the reality that grief hurts.  Do not attempt to rescue the child from the hurt.  Be supportive and available.  Provide a quiet, private place whenever the child needs to be alone.  Almost anything triggers tears.  Respect a child’s need to grieve.  Help them realize that grief is a natural and normal reaction to loss.

Often times special events, songs, situations, another loss, etc. will trigger the sadness and grief long after the death occurred.  If you are concerned about your child, please do not hesitate to call the school.  There are counselors, the social worker and psychologists readily available to talk with you and your child.

The above information was taken with permission from the June 1989 Amherst Middle School Newsletter.