Children’s Grief Awareness Day – How to Support Children and Young Adults as they Cope with Bereavement

Children’s Grief Awareness Day is recognized this year on Thursday, November 18th. A child’s reaction to death can depend on many things, including their developmental stage. The following are ways to understand and support the grief reactions of children and young adults by age group:

How do babies and toddlers (0 to 2 years) grieve?

This age group doesn’t understand the concept of death. They experience feelings of loss, abandonment, and insecurity if a significant person has died. They don’t have the language to express how they are feeling but can pick up distress around them.

Common reactions – increased crying, clinginess, looking for the person who has died, anxiety around strangers, possible withdrawal from food or play, regression in previously reached milestones.

Ways to support – hold and cuddle, be calm around them, provide comfort objects, like their favorite blanket or stuffed animal.

How do preschoolers (3 to 4 years) grieve?

Preschoolers find it hard to understand that death is permanent. They often develop an interest in the death of animals. Preschoolers can feel insecure and frightened when things change.

Common reactions Crying, clinginess, and being fearful, looking or calling out for the person who has died, tantrums, being irritable, changes in eating or sleeping habits, less ability to play, temporary regression, having a sense of the presence of the person who has died.

Ways to support – provide honest answers to questions, talk about who is looking after them and keeping them safe, support them with touch, read them children’s books about grief.

How do school-aged children (5 to 12 years) grieve?

School-aged children gradually begin to develop an understanding that death is permanent. Some children may still think that death is temporary. Children increasingly become aware that death is an inevitable part of life and can become anxious about their own health and safety. They may be concerned that someone else they love may die. They may be interested in what has happened to the person after they have died and where they are now.

Common Reactions – blaming themselves, having increased anxiety for their or others’ safety, not wanting to be separated from caregivers, not wanting to go to school, having physical complaints, suppressing emotions, feeling strong emotional reactions, behavioral issues.

Ways to support – reassure them that they are safe, keep routines and normal boundaries, make time to listen to their thoughts/questions and answer honestly, give them the opportunity to process what has happened, encourage physical activities.

How do teenagers (13+ years) grieve?

Teenagers understand that death is part of life. Developmentally, they are in a time of physical and emotional changes and may fluctuate between younger age group reactions and more adult reactions. Grief can have an impact on their developmental task of transitioning from dependent to independent.

Common reactions difficulty concentrating, needing more personal space, taking on adult responsibilities; acting out feelings of guilt, anger, or fear; difficulty expressing their emotions, fearing for their own and others’ safety; questions about mortality, death, dying, and spirituality; depression, wanting to be close to friends and family.

Ways to support – include them, be honest about what is happening, be willing to listen and available to answer questions. Acknowledge and share your feelings, let them know you understand it is hard for them, provide them with resources, talk about grief, avoid expectations of adult behavior.

Gilda’s Club Westchester offers a monthly drop-in program: “Grief in Common” for those who have lost a loved one to cancer. On the first Thursday of every month, members will join in a safe space to connect and engage with one another. This will allow time for open conversation, as well as discussion of topics related to grief, loss, and next steps. GCW also offers support to children and teens who have experienced a cancer-related loss. Contact Jaime Aker for more information or visit our website.