Children can experience grief and loss from a very young age. Like adults, children have their own ways of grieving. It is important to recognise that your child has feelings of grief and to help them express those feelings.
Talking to children about loss and grief
While it can be difficult to talk to a child about death, it is important to be honest with them and help them to understand what has happened.
Some suggestions include:
- Tell the truth in a simple, direct way.
- Use concrete words that children know – for example, say ‘died’ rather than ‘passed away’.
- If the child is quite young, it may help to use pictures, storybooks, toys and play to explain what has happened and how they feel.
- Explore with children the meaning they may make out of the situation. This may include spiritual and cultural beliefs and practices.
- Children are curious, so be prepared for regular and repeated questions. Be clear and honest with your responses.
- If you are too distressed to answer your child’s questions, ask another adult that you and the child trust to talk to the child.
- Don’t pretend that you are not sad – express your feelings to your child. This can help your child feel able to express their own feelings.
Children’s reactions to loss and grief
Like adults, children can be deeply affected by loss and grief experiences. While everyone has different ways of grieving, common grief reactions in children may include:
- grieving in doses, for example, crying one minute, then playing the next
- acting out feelings rather than talking
- changes in eating, sleeping and behaviour patterns
- wanting to sleep in bed with an adult
- displaying younger behaviours such as wetting the bed or sucking their thumb
- being angry, frustrated and restless
- lacking concentration and energy at school
- feeling responsible for their parents.
Sharing grief with children
Even at a very young age, children can sense and experience grief. They will be aware if their parents or other adults are sad or having difficulties with a particular situation. Sharing your feelings of sadness and loss with a child can help them understand why you are sad and see that it is alright to be sad and to express their sadness.
Death can also cause children to worry about their parents or themselves dying. Reassure them that everyone is safe and make sure that they are cared for during times of grief.
It is important to remain open and willing to talk about the various experiences of loss and grief. As children grow and develop, they will have different reactions to grief. A child who doesn’t react to or talk about a death or significant loss in the early stages may want to talk about it later or may show their interest and feelings in play rather than discussion.
Where to get help
- Your GP (doctor)
- Your local community health centre, hospital or palliative care service
- A trained bereavement counsellor
- NURSE-ON-CALL Tel. 1300 60 60 24 – for expert health information and advice (24 hours, 7 days)
- Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement – bereavement counselling and support services Tel. (03) 9265 2100 or 1800 642 066
- Kids Helpline – telephone counselling Tel. 1800 551 800 (24 hours, 7 days)
- Lifeline – crisis support and suicide prevention services Tel. 13 11 14 (24 hours, 7 days)
- Parentline Victoria – 8 am to 12 midnight, 7 days a week, Tel. 13 22 89
- SuicideLine Victoria Tel. 1300 651 251 – for counselling, crisis intervention, information and referral (24 hours, 7 days)
- GriefLine Community and Family Services Inc. – loss and grief telephone counselling service, 12 noon to 3 am, 7 days a week Tel. (03) 9935 7400 or 1300 845 745
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement
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