How you can help children and teens deal with grief

Dr. Saul Ebema

Many things influence children’s views on death and dying. Such as; age, religious beliefs, cultural and ethnic values. However, death has never been as foreign to children as evidenced in their games, chants, prayers and songs that have been passed on from generation to generation.

Peek-a-boo, a game that delights infants, is said to be derived from an old English word meaning ‘dead or alive. It teaches babies their first lessons in object permanence. One of the first games children learn, ‘ring around the Rosie’, with its chants “ashes to ashes, all fall down, grew out of children’s reaction to death during the great plague of the Middle Ages. Even today children commonly learn as their first prayer, “now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. A rope skipping chant familiar to many children contains the lines, “Doctor, Doctor, will I die? Yes my child and so will I.” Many other games like hide and seek have been offered as evidence of children’s lasting tendency to explore the contradictory nature of life and death.[1]

Children’s understanding of death however varies based on their cognitive development. Children under 2 have very little understanding of death. Between 3 and 5, children display magical thinking. They describe death either as a kind of sleep or as a gradual or temporary state. For them death is reversible. They’ll ask when the dead person is coming home again.

From ages 6 through 10, children comprehend the finality of death but will often regress to magical thinking. Children over 10 acquire a more mature understanding of death and realize that death is irreversible.

Wolfelt lists “ten ways counselors can help children and teens cope with grief”[2]:

  1. Allow children and teens to be the teachers of their grief experiences.
  2. Give them the opportunity to tell their story and be a good listener.
  3. Let your genuine concern and caring show.
  4. Don’t assume that every child or teen in a certain age group understands death in the same way or with the same feelings. All children are different and their view of the world is unique and shaped by different experiences.
  5. Use caution in describing death. For example, referring to death as a sleep from which one never awakens can result in tremendous fears about sleep. Also, describing the deceased loved one as having “gone away” may lead the child to feel abandoned.
  6. Allow the child to talk about the loved one who has died as much and as often as he/she wants to. Sometimes this may become extremely repetitive, but it is useful to the child in understanding and coping with his/her loss.
  7. Answer questions the child asks, even if they seem to be strange questions. It may be useful to ask the child what thoughts led to the question. Sometimes this technique can reveal misunderstandings about death.
  8. Encourage children to ask questions about death. Treat questions with respect and a willingness to help the child or teen find his or her own answers.
  9. Don’t assume that children and teens always grieve in an orderly or predictable way. We all grieve in different ways and there is no one correct way for people to move through the grieving process.
  10. Let children and teens know that you really want to understand what they are feeling or what they need. Sometimes children or teens are upset but they cannot tell you what will be helpful. Giving them the time and encouragement to share their feelings with you may enable them to sort out their feelings. Children and teens will need long-lasting support. The more death and losses the child or teen suffers, the more difficult it will be to recover. This is especially true if they have lost a parent who was their major source of support. Try to develop multiple counseling sessions for children and teens who suffer significant losses.

Keep in mind that grief work is hard. It is hard work for adults and hard for children and teens as well. Understand that grief work is complicated. Grieving may be complicated by a need for vengeance or justice and by the lack of resolution of the current situation.

A sudden or violent nature of the death can further complicate the grieving process. Don’t be afraid to talk about the person who died.

An important part of the healing process is remembering. Just bringing up the name of the person who died is a way to give children and teens permission to share their thoughts, feelings, and questions about the person who died.

Children and teens need to be allowed to remember the person who died in a way that is meaningful to them. Encourage the child or teen to express and talk about their feelings.

Share your feelings and memories of the person who died. Display a lot of affection, maintaining physical and emotional closeness.  Build and support the child’s or teen’s self-esteem.  Do maintain appropriate discipline and boundaries.  This helps the child or teen feel safe and secure.  It also gives them a sense of control in a chaotic time.


[1]Larry Platt and Roger G. Branch, Resources for Ministry in Death and Dying (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1988), 42.

[2] Allan Wolfelt, Helping Children Cope with grief (New York: Routledge, 1983), 56.

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