Children and teenagers have a different way of expressing their grief. Do not underestimate the impact of a bereavement, even if a child is very young or does not seem sad. They may express their grief through play, in outbursts of anger, or by becoming clingy or very withdrawn. Some children will complain more of stomach upsets or have trouble sleeping.
Children often worry that something they said or did caused the death, so let them know that the death is no-one’s fault and that there is nothing anyone could have done to prevent it. After the death of a parent, children need to be reassured that they will be looked after – explain to them who will be involved in their care.
Like adults, children and young people need:
- space to grieve – you do not have to fix their sorrow
- acknowledgement of their loss, ongoing support, and the opportunity to understand and express their feelings
- to be told the truth and to be included
- for the adults around them to show them that it’s okay to cry and express their sadness, and that it’s also fine to be angry as long as they don’t hurt themselves or others
- help to put words to their feelings of loss
- to keep up school, activities and regular routines
- encouragement to cherish their memories, talk about the person, and know that they were and are loved.
The ways children understand death and experience grief changes with their age and development. They might seem to be deeply distressed one moment and playing happily the next. This does not mean that their grief is superficial – they often work through their feelings in bits and pieces, facing them in bearable doses.
Allow children to talk about their emotions in a safe environment without judgement and give them tools that suit their way of grieving, such as drawing or kicking a ball to help manage emotions.
It’s especially hard to be there for your children when you are grieving. Sometimes people feel they just don’t have any emotional energy left for their children. It is not uncommon for children and teenagers to start to express their grief more strongly just as the adults supporting them feel like they are starting to cope with their own grief. At this time, it is important to allow others to help. Reach out to extended family, friends and school to make sure your children are well supported.
Find out more about children and grief
Cancer Council has more information about helping grieving children. Talking when cancer won’t go away explains how children of different ages understand cancer, illness and death, and answers some of the common questions kids ask.
We also have information for school staff when a student, a student’s family member or a staff member has died from cancer.
Call 13 11 20 if you would like free booklets about these topics sent to you.