Youths + Grief

Children and Grief

Grief is a deeply felt human response to loss and it is experienced physically, emotionally, cognitively, and behavioral.  It is a way of saying and feeling,  “I miss you”.

No matter how ready you may think you are, losing a loved one is heartfelt.  Imagine how it must be for a child, a youth, a teen!

Death is a new experience for most youths.   Like all new experiences, the unfamiliar can be confusing and frightening. Most youths do not know what to expect after the loss of a family member or friend. Young children may not understand what death really means and may be confused or even frightened by the reactions they observe of other family members. In the case of traumatic death, the confusion and fear is even greater.

There are different types of loss such as separation/divorce, a move, a friend or family member moving far away or a breakup of an intimate relationship.  One still experiences grief through such losses.

Children do not ask themselves, “How do I feel?” but experience their grief through their behaviour and play.

We live in a society that often shuns the word “dead”  or “die”  and more often than not, many adults prefer to say “passed away” , “is no longer with us” or “has gone away”.  As adults, we may be able to read between the lines but how does a child interpret this?   

Children and youth recognize many situations according to what they are able to comprehend developmentally.

Preschool children may show disrupted sleep, eating and toileting patterns.        Some may also show signs of regression.  .  It is not uncommon for a 5 year old who learned about his auntie’s death, to ask a few months later,  “So is Auntie coming for Sunday dinner?”.  He has not grasped the concept of time…forever and “a long time” is still too abstract to understand.

School age children are apt to express sadness as anger.They may require support in learning how to channel these emotions. 



Teens are apt to find comfort with their peers or they may become withdrawn and isolated.

One thing all school age children and teens have often shared is not being able to relate such an ordeal with their peers.  One six year old who lost his 3 year old sister, once told me, “I act all funny and goofy at school so they don’t feel ill at ease with me.”  Talking to a trusted adult, a counsellor, Kids Help Phone or considering joining a bereavement group for youths such as Bereaved Families or Compassionate Friends can offer the venue to experience and share their grief with their peers.

Each person grieves in his unique way.  Remember the  popular  Kübler-Ross Stage model on “Death and Dying”?  The purpose, at that time was understanding how  a terminally ill person coped with his own illness.   That said, there are grief stages but in no particular order or sequence.

Youths do have a sense of shock, denial, disbelief and then go on to a sense of turmoil, sadness, anger, guilt and then they get to some form of reintegration.  It is important to interpret these stages loosely, and expect much individual variation. 

Grief is like an onion.  Over time we peel one skin at a time…each layer is the grief revisited`…experienced…over time each time it is revisited it becomes less intense.

I like to compare grief to the ocean.  At first the tide rolls in fiercely and that is when you are feeling sad, upset, angry and sometimes even guilty..  When the waves roll back out into the ocean, you are feeling a bit calmer.  Over time the tide rolls in and out less frequently. Eventually the water is calm … only a ripple is seen.   That ripple could be a moment to remember an important time you had with this person.

How do you respond to your child in the face of death and loss?

Be honest

–          Use simple age-appropriate explanations

–          Don’t be afraid to use “dead” and “die”

–          For a young child, explanations such as “gone to heaven”, “going to sleep” and “going on a long trip” is confusing and scary as they may be taken literally.  The child may be afraid to take a nap or start behaving badly so that he does not get sent to heaven.

Several years ago, during the middle sessions of a bereavement group of 6 to 7 year olds, the children had to draw or write how they felt after their parent died.  Some said “sad” because their parent suffered during their illness; One parent had committed suicide and mother hesitated to tell her son the truth.  It had been recommended he hear it from his mother rather than friends or relatives.  During this activity, the child said he felt, “relieved” that  his father had not suffered like so many of the other children’s parents had.

 Use Open Communication

–          Be open to discussion and listen to the child

–          Let the topic of death be an ongoing discussion because of how children and youths experience grief intermittently.

It is not unusual for a teenager whose father died 5 years earlier, to suddenly start acting out, be irritable or explosive.    Children and youths have certain tolerances.  They cannot process it all at once.  It will come back…tomorrow…next week…in a few months or a few years.

This is often misunderstood by adults (parents, teachers, professionals) sometimes labelling the behaviour as being an impulsive and rebellious teen.  Imagine the emotional turmoil for any adolescent in the best of times, and then add a death or loss…

Check in to see that the youth understands

–          Ask the child to repeat what they have learned.  Children have creative imaginations and may not be able to distinguish reality from fantasy. This can lead to fear and confusion.

–          Children need to be reassured that other family members will not suddenly die and abandon them.


Psychological time is not the same as chronological time.  A youth may appear fine;  he may not be ready to process the death (denial) and will allow the pain to do underground.  But it will resurface when he is ready.


Things to think about:

–       Children and youths are people who grieve too.

–       Do allow them to release their emotions. Let them call their feelings by the rightful names.  Let them express it (poetry, a story, a song, painting, clay)

–       Do show your own grief;   it gives the child permission to grieve.   If feelings are overwhelming, seek support (professionally, friends, community, religious institution).

–       Do allow them to find their way to remember…a scrapbook of pictures, a decorative box of keepsakes and memorial stories, a collage, etc.

–       Do not cut children/youths out the death experience (funerals, services, rituals). Ask them first.  Many resent the fact they did not participate. Some may feel regret they could not be present. If it is not possible, consider having a private memorial with the immediate family.

–       Do contact your child’s school so teachers may notice and understand any change in their behaviour such as change of grades, regressive behaviour, and sudden sullenness.

–       Do seek help if you feel unable to deal with your child during this crisis.

–       Do remember that a sibling loss is often a multiple loss.  They lose a sibling forever and for a time they also lose their parents who are actively grieving the loss of their child.

–       Do not tell a child he or she is now the man or woman of the house or a replacement for a dead sibling.


Beware of some Red Flags:

–           Suicidal thoughts or actions (younger children may fantasize about joining the deceased)

–           Chronic depression, sleeping difficulties and low self-esteem

–           Isolation from family and friends

–           Academic failure or overachievement

–           Dramatic change in personality and attitude

–           Change in eating habits

–           Risky behaviour: drug and alcohol abuse –promiscuity

© Cheryl-Lynn Roberts, Ntouch-Alecoute, November 2011


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