Grief is a process of dealing with an unexpected loss or perceived loss. It is a method of coping and is a universal and personal experience. Grief is not just equated with death but can be experienced in many situations including divorce, separation (from loved ones), loss of security (homelessness, etc.), financial difficulties, and health problems or diagnoses.
All people, regardless of age, experience the five stages of grief:
- Denial: unwillingness to discuss the loss
- Anger: blaming others for the loss (or personal guilt)
- Bargaining: attempt to regain control by making promises or changing one’s life
- Depression: loss of energy, appetite, or interest in activities
- Acceptance: admission that loss is final, real, significant, and painful
While everyone experiences these 5 stages, grief is unique to the individual and there is no right or wrong way to react to a loss. Grief reactions among children and adolescents are influenced by their developmental level, personal characteristics, mental health, family and cultural influences, and previous exposure to crisis, death, and loss.
Depending on their age, children have different concepts and beliefs about loss that affect their emotions and behaviors. These should be taken into consideration when helping them process a loss. Please refer to the chart below for the different stages.
How adults in a family or community grieve the loss will influence how children and adolescents grieve. When adults are able to talk about the loss, express their feelings, and provide support, children and adolescents are better able to develop healthy coping strategies. Adults are encouraged to:
- Take care of you—exercise, eat well balanced meals, and reach out to others for support.
- Be honest and give children important facts about the event at an appropriate developmental level. This may include helping children accurately understand what death is.
- Listen to your child and let them share their story about what happened. Let them ask questions and answer them as best as you can. It is okay to say, “I don’t know.”
- Acknowledge your child’s grief and be careful not to impose your own grief on them but allow them to grieve in his or her own way.
- Give your child creative ways to express their feelings. This can be done through drawing, writing, doing crafts, listening to music, or playing games.
- Create structure and routine for children so they experience stability and predictability. Maintain clear expectations by keeping rules and boundaries consistent. Children gain security when they know what is expected of them.
- Reassure your child by reminding them that he or she is loved. Following a loss, a child’s sense of safety or security can be shaken. Be present with your child.
- Provide a model of healthy mourning by being open about your own feelings of sadness and grief.
Please remember that you do not grieve alone and there are many resources and community support to aid in this process. For more information on Children and Grief, please visit childgrief.org.