Children Grief Counseling

I found this extremely helpful guide online and I have brought it to you in its entirety. Please see a link just below, and the acknowledgements at the end of the article.

I want to thank the authors for their clear and helpful writing, and hope that the folks who find it on my site see it as helpful.

I wish that I had had this information earlier this year when my son was grieving the loss of his old friend Quincy, our house cat who passed in the summer.

We had a burial ceremony, and my daughter (4) struggled to understand that Quincy would not be coming back.

She has on occasion gone outside to his grave to talk to him, so a plan for walking with children as they go through the grieving process is very important I think.

Shane went through some excellent grieving, wailed, and cried, and did a great job of feeling his feelings and letting go.

As a parent, it was hard to hear the intensity of his pain, and let him go through it, without fixing it or stopping the grief, and it brought back memories of all my losses, parents, a pet, from my youth.

So his grieving helped me heal a bit more of my own.

Helping Children Understand Death

Perhaps a child you know is facing the death of a loved one. Adults often fear that children are too fragile to face the reality of death. Actually, most children are emotionally strong and want to know about death. The truth helps them understand what is real, and what is imaginary. Just like adults, children need to be able to feel pain, mourn and grow. This fact sheet will help you understand how children view death and how you can help a child cope with the death of a loved one. To learn more about the process of mourning, read Learning to Live Through Loss (L-842) available from your Extension office.


Very young children understand facts best. They think in specific, concrete terms. When death is explained as “sleep” or “a long trip” they may expect the deceased to wake up, or return. Very young children see death as reversible, as it is often shown in cartoons. They may ask, “When will Bobby come back?” You may need to explain again and again, “Bobby is dead. That means he won’t ever live with us again. But we will always remember him.”

They may not realize that death will happen to everyone and every living thing.

They may need to ask again and again, “Do girls die? Do doggies die?”

Young children need to ask questions about the death again and again.

They need to learn the facts about the death and to make certain the facts have not changed.

Young children are likely to believe their thoughts or feelings have power over others. A child who was angry at his mother before her death may believe he is responsible for the death.


Children of this age know that death is permanent and that everything dies.

They often are very curious about physical details.

These children need physical, tangible ways to experience and express grief.

Rituals such as visitations, funerals and memorial services are very important.

Children accept their parents’ religious beliefs.

A belief in life after death generally comforts children if that concept has been part of their religious beliefs before the death.

Boys tend to have more difficulty talking about death and showing their feelings.


1. Someone emotionally close to the child should be the one to “break the news.”

2. Choose a location where you will not be disturbed.

3. Stay with the known facts. If you don’t know the facts, find out before telling the child about the death.

4. Be concrete—avoid misleading terms like “He’s asleep.”

5. Avoid phrases like “All wounds heal in time” and “Everything will be all right.” The child cannot comprehend such statements. Say, “This must feel frightening (or confusing).”

6. Simply be with the child. Allow the child to ask questions and answer as clearly and factually as possible. If you don’t know, say so.

7. Be quiet and wait. Sometimes it takes a while for children to understand what has happened. The child also may need time to react to the news.

Because of young children’s misconceptions of death, you may need to stress that:

The person or the doctors could not prevent the death.

The person loved the child.

The person was not angry at the child.

The person will never come back.

The child will be loved. Someone will take care of the child.

Feelings are all right: sadness, anger, and crying are ok.

There’s nothing wrong with playing and having fun.

You can gently reassure children with these concepts even if they have not asked questions about them. Children may not be able to verbalize some of their concerns right away or may feel too embarrassed to ask you.


“When someone dies, that means their body is no longer working. The heart stops beating, they no longer need to eat or sleep, and they no longer feel any pain.

They don’t need their body any longer. That means we will never see them again as we could before. (From Children and Death, by Danai Papadatou and Costas Papadatos.)


When they learn of the death of a loved one, children have many of the same physical and emotional responses as adults, but children mourn their loss in different ways.

Adults need to be aware of these signs of mourning in order to accurately meet the children’s needs.

When children’s mourning behaviors are wrongly perceived as misbehavior, the children’s hurt and confusion may deepen.


Children may lose their sense of security and fear another death or loss. Young children may become clinging or demanding.

Vivid memories

Real or fantasized images related to the death can intrude on other thoughts. Memories can show up as dreams or nightmares.

Sleep difficulty

This is very common. If “sleep” is used to describe death, the child may fear sleeping. Children who cannot mourn the death during the day may have more dreams and nightmares about it.

Sadness and longing

Some children cry. Some don’t. Some are sad for a long time; some aren’t.

Some children try to hide their sadness to protect their parents. Children may long for the loved one, become preoccupied with memories or may carry an object that reminds them of the deceased. For a while, this can help the child deal with the pain.

Anger and acting out

Children may become very angry at death, God, or adults in general. Or they may be angry at themselves, and some how feel responsible for the death.


Some children believe they are responsible for the death. Some may feel guilty because of a thought or deed. Feelings like, “It was my fault” or “I must have been bad” may cause lingering guilt. The child needs to talk about these feelings and needs your help to understand that they are not true.

School problems

The child may learn more slowly than usual due to difficulties in concentrating, memories, sadness and grief. Physical complaints Common complaints include headaches, stomach aches and may even include symptoms similar to those of the deceased.


Children need rituals. Participating in the funeral or memorial service helps make the death seem more real and encourages the healing that comes from mourning. Children may feel angry or left out if they are not allowed to participate. Of course, no child should be forced to participate if he or she does not want to.


1. Prepare the child for the experience: what the room looks like where the body will be viewed, what the casket looks like, how the deceased is lying, and that the skin looks different than usual and is cold because the body isn’t working anymore. Explain how adults at the funeral may behave; crying or even laughing while reminiscing.

2. If the child wishes, help him approach the casket. Viewing the body helps the child understand what death is and that their loved one is, in fact, dead. Few children later regret viewing the body; many regret not doing so. Most focus on the familiar features of their loved one. Plan the child’s first viewing to be in private with a supportive adult. The child’s age and maturity are critical factors to consider.

3. School age children can help make some of the decisions about the service for a family member. For example, they may want to choose a song or the burial clothes.

4. Suggest specific ways for children to express their feelings. They might choose to place something in the casket, write a letter or draw a picture. Young children may want to touch the deceased or look under the closed part of the casket to know that the legs are actually there. Older children may value time alone to talk to the deceased. Be responsive and supportive of what the child wants to do. Do not force them to engage in any uncomfortable actvity.

5. The support of a trusted adult is important. A parent who has lost a spouse, child or parent may not be able to provide this support. The parent will need to participate in the event and mourn. The child may need another caring adult who can comfort, answer questions, and leave the room with the child if necessary.

6. Encourage the child to talk, draw or play to release emotions after the service. Patiently correct any misunderstandings about death or the service. "My Daddy Died and it is All God's Fault" by Sue Holden.

Young Chris tells his story—his feelings of sadness, anger, false guilt and confusion— to help other young people know they are not alone. (Fiction)

How It Feels When A Parent Dies by Jill Krementz

Eighteen young people (ages 7 to 16) describe their feelings when a parent died and how they learned to go on in life. (Non-fiction)

Losing Someone You Love: When a Brother or Sister Dies by Elizabeth Richter Sixteen young people (ages 10 to 24) describe the fears, sorrow and other emotions they experienced when a brother or sister died. (Non-fiction) REFERENCES

Dyregrov, Atle. Grief in Children: A Handbook for Adults. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1990.

Papadatou, Danai and Costas Papadatos (eds). Children and Death. Philadelphia: Hemisphere Publishing Corporation, 1991.

Rando, Therese, Grieving: How to Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies.

Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1984. Carolyn S. Wilken, Ph.D. Extension Specialist Aging and Healthcare

Joyce Powell Extension Assistant, Home Economics Reviewed by: Kim Logan, M.A., bereavement counselor and community educator, Kansas City Hospice.

David E. Balk, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Human Development and Family Studies, Kansas State University.

Charles A. Smith, Ph.D., Professor, Extension Specialist, Human Development, Kansas State University.

North Central Regional Extension Publications are subject to peer review and prepared as a part of the Cooperative Extension activities of the thirteen land grant universities of the twelve North Central States, in cooperation with the Extension Service—US. Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C. The following universities cooperated in making this publication available: Iowa State University, *Kansas State University, North Dakota State University, and South Dakota State University. *Publishing state For copies of this publication, contact the universities listed as sponsors. Programs and activities of the Cooperative Extension Service are available to all potential clientele without regard to race, color, national origin, age, sex, religion, or disability. In cooperation with the NCR Educational Materials Project. Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Acts of Congress on May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Cooperative Extension Services of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas. Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. Richard D. Wootton, Associate Director, Cooperative Extension Service at Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas. Printed and distributed in cooperation with Extension Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C., and the Universities of Alaska, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire; Colorado State, New Mexico State, and Oregon State Universities; Florida A and M University; and Cornell University. Published June 1994

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