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Grief and Children

Grief is an emotion that can affect a person at any age. People experience grief when someone we love dies, but how a child reacts to the life altering situation is much different from adults.

Preschool age children have a difficult time separating reality from fiction. They may believe that their family member, friend or pet that has died, will come back to life. Older children may understand the concept of death, but believe it will not happen to them or anyone close to them.

Boys Town Pediatrics recommends encouraging your child to ask questions they may have about death and the person who died. Reassure your child that it is okay to feel scared, angry or sad and try to get your child to express his or her feelings by talking about the beloved person or looking at photographs. Do not force your child to attend a funeral or to continue conversation about death or the deceased.

Boys Town Pediatrics offers a few tips to parents and caregivers to help children overcome grief:

  • Show affection and reassure the child that people will take care of him.
  • Answer questions using age-appropriate language to make sure the child understands what you are saying.
  • If a parent or primary caregiver of a child has died, family members and friends can help by trying to keep the consistency of the child’s daily routine.
  • Be careful not to use phrases such as “he was sick” or “she had to go to the hospital” as these may raise fears of being sick or going to the doctor.
  • Share your feelings with the child and ask the child to share feelings with you.

The grieving period may depend on the significance of the relationship the deceased person had with the child. The child may seem to be doing well, only to regress a few weeks later. A few signs that a child is having problems with grief include:

  • Childhood depression
  • Unable to express anger appropriately
  • Inability to sleep or reoccurring nightmares
  • Withdrawal from activities, friends, sports or school

If you have questions about your child’s emotional health, contact your child’s physician.

Q&A: Grief

What bereavement services are available at school?
School counselors are available at all schools to deal with grief issues.

When should a child see a doctor about grief?
A child should see their pediatrician if their grief is impairing their daily functioning

How should a parent or caregiver say to a child when the unthinkable happens to a young relative or classmate?
If a classmate or relative has died, a child should be told the truth with age-appropriate language. There are books and aids available to help adults explain the situation.

If you have questions on how to address a child’s grief, contact your child’s pediatrician.​

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