- Cancer Information
- Advanced cancer
- Understanding grief
- How to help someone who is grieving
- Helping children in your family
Helping children in your family
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 They may express their grief through play, in outbursts of anger, or by becoming clingy or very withdrawn.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 and headaches 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.
Learn more about:
- What children need
- How children might understand death and experience grief
- More resources on children and grief
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. Young children in particular will often have lots of questions about “who will do what now” and “how will things work” that will emerge as time goes on.
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 (as much as they want to)
- 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, but don’t be surprised if they don’t want to talk when you do, and don’t push if they prefer not to talk
- to keep up school, activities and regular routines
- encouragement to cherish their memories, talk about the person
- to know that they were and are loved.
The ways children understand death and experience grief change 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 thoughts and feelings as much as they want to. Teenagers may find it hard to talk to you or show how they feel. Provide 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 you provide support. Reach out to extended family, friends, the school community and grief counsellors to make sure your children are well supported.
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 has information for school staff when a student, a student’s family member or a staff member has died from cancer.
Kate Jurgens, Bereavement Coordinator, Southern Adelaide Palliative Services, SA; Gabrielle Asprey, Cancer Support Consultant, Cancer Council NSW; A/Prof Lauren Breen, Psychologist, Curtin University, WA; Rev David Dawes, Manager, Spiritual Care Department, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Rob Ferguson, Consumer; Karen Hall, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Joanna Mangan, Psychologist, Cancer Council Queensland; Kate Reed, Nurse Practitioner National Clinical Advisor, Palliative Care Australia; Maxine Rosenfield, Counsellor and Educator, NSW.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
The information on this page is also available for download.