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Helping Children Deal with Loss

  How Children Can Cope With Death and Other Kinds of Loss

The purpose of this information is to help you better understand the needs of children who are experiencing loss.  It is mostly about loss through death – that of a parent, grandparent, other close relative or friend.  Some losses will be short lived, but generally the grieving experience, even for children, has deeper effects and lasts longer than most people realize.  At a time of loss, children need the support of a caring adult, usually a parent. 


It is important to realize these first principles.  (1.)  Children grieve.  (2.)  Children may grieve for a long time.  Younger children have short attention spans and a low tolerance for emotions so that they keep leaving and coming back to their grief.  Young people of any age rarely get over a significant loss in a hurry and they should not be expected to.  (3.)  Each person’s loss is special for that person.  The relationship and degree of attachment usually determine the intensity  of grief.  (4.)  A child needs a role model.  As you talk about the loss and show emotions, your child is helped to do the same. 


The Funeral or Memorial Service


Should children attend?  Rely on your judgment and on whether the child wants to attend.

Why should the child attend?  A funeral or memorial service is a special even to acknowledge the death.  It is a time to begin to accept the fact of death.  This is the sad part of the funeral, and it’s okay to admit the sadness.  A second reason is that the service is a way of remembering the life of the person who died, a way of saying that the person was loved and appreciated. 

Faith.  The family’s faith will be reflected in the service, and that may mean a declaration of life after death.  Many children are comforted by this and other beliefs. 

Death that affects your child, but not you.  Offer to attend the service with your child so that he or she will have your support. 


The Grieving Process in Children


The stages.  The grief process flows through different stages.  The movement, usually not straight ahead but back and forth between stages is call the normal/adaptive grieving process.


Stage 1.                 Early Responses.  These are denial, shock, numbness.

Stage 2.                 Acute Grief.  Includes sadness, depression, anger, guilt, anxiety, fears, regression, and physical distress.

Stage 3.                 Adjustment.  This means the painful acceptance of reality.  Reorganization and reestablishment of life follow.

The Grade School Child

The grade school child gradually comes to understand that death is a reality.  By age 10, the child probably understands it fairly well but may still believe that death happens only to other people.  Children in this group cope best by understanding.  They need simple, honest, and accurate information.  As with adults, children are unprepared for the length of the grieving process.  The work of grief is not counted in minutes or days and does not happen all at once.  Children, especially, approach and then avoid their feelings.  Adults need to understand and accept this on-again, off-again method of grieving.    School staff are sympathetic and concerned in these situations.  Talk about problems that occur in school.  Watch for these school related grieving behaviors:  misbehaving, anger toward teacher or classmates, poor grades due to inability to concentrate or preoccupation with the loss, physical ailments such as headaches or stomachaches either prior to or during the school day.  Anger is another characteristic of this age group.  A child may have anger focused on people for causing the death, God, the doctors, nurses, ministers, or at anyone who was involved with the person prior to or after the death.  Allow your child to talk about his or her anger.  Accept the normalcy of this reaction.  Often a pleasurable activity may help release anger.  It needs to be channeled in ways that are not hurtful or destructive.  We all struggle with it.

Warning Signs of Abnormal Grief

*Absence of grief – no emotion

*Persistent blame or guilt – other anxieties

*Aggressive and destructive outbursts

*Depression or suicidal thoughts

*Unwillingness to speak about the deceased

*Expressing only positive or negative feelings about deceased

*New stealing or other inappropriate acts

*Always assuming a caretaking role


The intensity and duration may be deciding factors indicating the need for professional help.


Signs of Healing.  (1.)  Painful acceptance of reality of the death/loss.  (2.)  The reorganization of life around the new circumstance. (3.)  The re-establishment of normal relationships and activities.  These milestones show that your child is moving in a healthy way.

Special Occasions Bring Back Grief.  This is normal and predictable part of the grieving process and should be viewed as healthy opportunities to express thoughts and feelings.  You might be able to plan something special that honors the memory of the one who died.

Getting Through the “Firsts.”  First birthdays, holidays, etc., are always the hardest.  

Encourage Kids to Eat Right and Drink Lots of Water.  Changes in appetite are not uncommon.  Grieving is draining and it is important to stay hydrated and make healthy eating choices early in the stages of grieving.

Help the Child at Bedtime.  Sleep may come hard for grieving children.  Be consistent rituals, such as a story, a song, a conversation, or prayers.  These times together establish security and assurance

Your child will always have memories of the person who has died.  From time to time your child will need to share those memories as well as other thoughts and feelings.  Listen and then listen some more.  Not all children are talkers and not all grief emotions are expressed verbally.  Artwork, poetry, journaling and other modes of creative expression are wonderful outlets for working through emotions and thoughts associated with death or the deceased.  There is no right or wrong way to grieve.


How Can I Offer Sympathy?  What Do I Say?


*”I am sorry for your loss.”  This will let the person know you care.

*”You are in my thoughts.  I am thinking of you.”  Reminding a bereaved person of your thoughts will help them not to feel so alone.

*”I will miss him/her.”

*”This must be so hard for you.”  Acknowledging the pain and grief can be very consoling.

*Share a positive memory.

*If you want to talk, I am here for you.


What NOT to Say


*I Know How You Are Feeling.  Grief is individual.

*S/he Is In A Better Place.  It has the potential to be offensive.

*How are You Doing?  It may encourage a grieving person to put on a false face.

*Don’t Worry.  You Will Feel Better Soon.  Grief has no timeline.



Someone Special Has Died


I first learned about his/her death_________________________________________________________.


I felt _______________________­­­­­­­­­­­­_________________________________________________________.


I thought that_________________________________________________________________________.


I will miss most________________________________________________________________________.


Memories Are Important


Write a poem or short story about the person who died and give it to his/her family.  It will help them know how much you cared for the person who died and how you will remember him/her.

Looking at photos will help you remember how the person looked and special times you spent with him/her.

Send cards, flowers, or donate a gift to the family.

Draw a picture of how you feel.





Draw a picture to remind you of the special person who died.  You might want to share your picture with his or her family.




The family of the person who died is also very sad.  One way to help them feel better is to draw a picture or write a letter to them about a special memory you have of the person who died and what he/she meant to you.








Send a sympathy card.




When someone special dies, we feel a lot of different and confusing feelings.  Circle the feelings you have felt since you learned about the death:

Sad                                         Angry                                    Lonely                                   Nervous

Happy                                   Sorry                                     Scared                                  Relieved

Worried                               Guilty                                    Tearful                                  Afraid

Mad                                       Numb


All feelings are normal.  It is important to have someone with whom you can talk out your feelings.  List the people in your life that you can count on to listen to your feelings:



Sometimes you might want to be alone when you are sad or hurting.  List or draw activities that comfort you when you are alone:


Example:  Spending time with my pet



Draw a picture of something that comforts you when you are sad:





If you need additional resources, please contact:

Mrs. Donna Combs, School Counselor – Western Elementary School

1901 Frankfort Road, Georgetown, KY 40324

(502) 863-1393 EXT 8292


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