Children and the grieving process

The stages of grieving

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified the following stages of grieving:

  • Shock
  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

Shock is a physical and emotional reaction a person experiences after a traumatic incident. Physical reactions can include heart palpitations, excessive sweating, shakiness and anxiety. The person only focuses on the traumatic incident and often experiences it as surreal.

In the stage of denial the person can’t believe and accept what happened.

Anger can be directed toward the person who passed away, towards the grieving person him/herself or towards God who allowed it to happen.

Depression includes intense sadness and no energy to continue with normal life events. Fatigue and the inability to concentrate can also be symptoms of depression.

Although the person who lost a beloved still feels sad for a very long time, it is possible to reach the stage of acceptance.

These stages of grief doesn’t necessary take place in the same order as described above. A person can experience these stages at different times, moving forwards and backwards between the stages.

A child going through the grieving process can experience symptoms of fatigue, sleep problems, eating problems, psychosomatic symptoms (e.g. headaches or tummy aches without a medical cause). The child might also experience intense sadness, guilt, fears and behavioural changes (such as aggression or anger outbursts).

Healthy expression of emotions

Parents should not hide their sadness and tears from their children. When children see a parent cry, they learn that crying is a normal way of expressing sadness.

I like to use the comparison between not expressing emotions and an overflowing dustbin. When we keep on throwing rubbish in a bin, the bin will eventually start to overflow with rubbish. When we don’t express our emotions we will one day get to a point where we can’t withhold it any longer and it will start overflowing in anger, aggression, extreme sadness or depression.

Motivate your child to talk about the loved one who passed away even if he/she starts crying. Explain to him/her that there is nothing wrong with crying, but that it is in fact the body’s natural way of expressing sadness.


When a loved one passed away, it is normal that the child will experience intense sadness and longing for that person, but children don’t always have the ability to talk about how they feel. Ask the child to draw a picture about his/her feelings. Talk about the picture, where in his/her body the emotion is felt, when he/she feels sad and what you can do to help make him/her feel better.

Expressive behaviour

It is important that children express their anger appropriately. There are different ways to help a child to do so, such as hitting a pillow or a boxing bag. When a loved one passed away children should be supported to deal with anger and aggression appropriately instead of directing it towards hurting themselves or others.


Sometimes we do things (or don’t) shortly before a loved one dies. An example of a child's reasoning will be: “If I packed my schoolbag earlier as my mother had asked, we wouldn’t have been late and then dad wouldn’t have been in the car accident.” A child who wished his annoying little sister to leave, and then she dies, believes that his thoughts had caused his sister's death. This is guilt. When a child feels guilty about something he/she said or did, the child must be told repeatedly that it is not his fault, he could not have caused the loved one’s death.


When someone dies children often experience two common fears: that another loved one is also going to die or that he himself will die soon. The child will begin to avoid the situation that corresponds to the situation in which the loved one has died, for example: if a grandfather died in a car accident the child might avoid being transported in a car. Explain to the child that this will not be the case; many people drive in cars and don’t die.


When a child asks questions about death and dying, the questions should be answered honestly, but in a way the child can understand. Explain the emotions we experience when someone dies, and that it is normal to feel sad, angry, etc.
Avoid using words and phrases that will create a dishonest perspective of death and dying. Grandpa is not at another place; he doesn’t live in another town or is on holiday after he passed away. Grandma is not asleep; she will not wake up again. She is not gone, for else we can go look for her. Rather explain to the child that her body passed away, but her soul is in heaven. An easy way to explain ‘soul’ to a child is to refer to the part of us that feels happy or unhappy, that make us laugh or cry. It is the "me" within our bodies.

General comments

People tend to make remarks like: "Now that Dad is not here anymore, you should now be the man of the house," or "You must look after Dad because Mom is not here anymore.” This type of comments put a huge responsibility and burden on a child. The child takes these comments literally and feels he/she must fulfil this role. The child is not given the opportunity to work through the grieving process and is robbed from his/her childhood. These types of comments should thus be avoided.


Since children do not always have the ability to verbalize their emotions or might be afraid to do so, they do not talk about their emotions and thoughts. Here are some general tips to help children to share their feelings after the death of a loved one.

  • Take extra time to listen and give hugs. Have patience: patience to nurture, listen, love, even if your child resist it. He will talk about his emotions and begin to ask questions when he feels ready to do so.
  • Try to keep the same routine as usual. If necessary ask for help from family or friends so that the child remains in his/her routine and familiar environment. It gives the child a sense of security and normality in his life.
  • When a parent dies ask a grandparent, aunt or uncle to do things with the child the mother or father has done in the past.
  • Prepare your child for what will happen in future. The exact events to plan the funeral, but also for the future.
  • Involve the child in the funeral arrangements. Give the child the opportunity to say goodbye at the funeral, if he/she wants to. Visit the grave when the child asks to visit. Do not withhold the child to grieve. Don’t force the child to take part in arrangements, or to visit the grave if he/she doesn’t want to.
  • Communicate with the child's school. Ask the teacher to support the child and to let you know of any worrisome behaviour.
  • Browse through albums or create a new album together and talk about the good memories you both have of the deceased.
  • Allow the child to write letters or draw pictures to the deceased. Writing about the sadness, longing, guilt (if any), or things that the child would like to tell the deceased, will help the child to grief. Ask the child what he/she wants to do with the letters or pictures and respect his/her decision. The letters can be stored, put on the grave or put in a helium-filled balloon and send up into the air.

When to seek professional help:

  • When the child's behaviour worries you.
  • When the child struggles to handle normal daily tasks.
  • When the child blocks out the trauma and emotions.

When a child learns that death is a normal part of life and learns to communicate his/her emotions, the child is already well on the way to recover from the trauma. Give the child an opportunity to discuss his/her emotions, thoughts and questions. Be honest and patient with the child. As a parent, take care of yourself and seek professional help if you have difficulty dealing with the grieving process.

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