- Cancer Information
- Advanced cancer
- Understanding grief
- How to help someone who is grieving
- Helping children deal with grief
Helping children deal with grief
The way children and teenagers grieve is different from adults. How they understand death and experience grief will depend on their age and development. Even if they’re very young or don’t seem sad, they may experience grief.
Learn more about:
- How may children react?
- How to support a child
- There is no “perfect” way to comfort children
- Where to find out more about children and grief
How may children react?
Reactions may include:
- grieving in bits and pieces (e.g. deeply distressed one moment and playing or doing their usual activities the next)
- changes in behaviour (e.g. becoming clingy, very withdrawn)
- physical symptoms (e.g. stomach upsets, headaches, trouble sleeping).
You can’t protect a child from the pain of a loss, but you can provide support in a range of ways:
- give them space to grieve – you do not have to fix their sorrow
- acknowledge their loss, offer ongoing support, and the opportunity to understand and express their feelings (as much as they want to)
- answer any questions honestly and directly
- avoid using euphemisms such as “went to sleep”
- show your emotions so they know feeling sad or angry is okay
- encourage them to express their feelings in a way that feels comfortable to them, e.g. talking to you or another adult, making art, playing sport or spending time in nature
- provide a safe environment where they can share how they are feeling without feeling judged or interrupted
- reassure them that nothing they said or did caused the death, and that there is nothing anyone could have done to prevent it
- explain who will be involved in their care
- encourage them to share memories of the person and to keep some of the person’s special things or display photos in their room
- stick to regular routines such as school, other activities and bedtimes
- communicate with the school so it can offer support
- let them know it’s okay not to talk about the person when they don’t want to
- be prepared to talk when you least expect it (e.g. driving in the car, going for a walk)
- let them know that they were and are loved.
There is no “perfect” way to comfort children
You may find being there for your children when you are also grieving challenging. Sometimes people who are grieving 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.
Try not to pressure yourself – there is no “perfect” way to comfort children. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, ask others to help you keep your children’s lives as normal as possible. Reach out to extended family, friends, spiritual care practitioners, the school community and grief counsellors to make sure your children are well supported.
Where to find out more about children and grief
- Talking to kids about cancer explains how children of different ages understand cancer, illness and death, and answers some of the common questions kids ask.
- Cancer in the school community includes information for school staff when a member of the school community has died from cancer.
- Canteen and Redkite offer support tailored for young people.
Podcast: Explaining Cancer to Kids
A/Prof Lisa Beatty, Associate Professor in Clinical Psychology and Consulting Clinical Psychologist, Flinders University Institute of Mental Health and Wellbeing, SA; Sandra Anderson, Consumer; Dr Alexandra Clinch, Palliative Medicine Specialist and Deputy Director, Palliative Care, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and Royal Melbourne Hospital, VIC; Christopher Hall, Chief Executive Officer, Grief Australia; Nathan MacArthur, Specialist Grief Counsellor and Accredited Mental Health Social Worker, Sydney Grief Counselling Services, NSW; Linda Magann, Clinical Nurse Consultant – Palliative Care, St George Hospital, NSW; Palliative Care Australia; Richard Upton, Consumer; Lesley Woods, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.