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Children and Grief - The Death of a Parent

Updated on September 2, 2012

Bereaved Children Have Questions

Grief is the emotional response felt when a loved one or something treasured is taken away, and though it's a natural response, it is painful. For children, the intensity of such pain is difficult for them to understand. Just as with adult grieving, children can be subject to feelings of guilt, anger, and even shock. For some children, mourning the loss of a parent can take many years, even a lifetime. For others who are more resilient, the process may take no more than a year.

Bereaved children will have questions needing answered but may be too afraid or confused to ask them. To help your child feel safe in a world that's been shaken, the surviving parent, or the other adults in the child life, can preempt their concerns by answering before the need to ask arises. Your child may be worried that no one will be available to take care of him. He will need reassured often until he begins to feel safe again.

If the loss has occurred following an illness, your child may worry that she will become sick and die, too. Sometimes a visit to the pediatrician for a quick check-up will offset those fears. Make sure you speak to the staff prior to the appointment so they can be prepared with answers to any questions your child may ask.

Perhaps one of the scariest questions children are most afraid to ask is whether they were the cause of the parent's death. Children say a lot of things and make a lot of private wishes at one time or another. Your child may develop a sense of guilt over some of their past behaviors and believe the death is some type of punishment. If guilt seems persistent, a grief counselor who specializes in children may be on order.

Grieving Children Have Needs

The needs of grieving children are as great as those of the surviving parent. If you are coping with the loss of your spouse, you may need to enlist the help of family and friends in caring for your child/children. It very important that your child continues to feel looked after. This is a time for lots of hugs, kisses, and cuddling.

It's equally important to sustain the daily routine. Home activities should go on as before. Leaders and supervisors of groups or clubs, in which your child is a member, should be informed of what has taken place as soon as possible so they can be a support for your child. Extra care should be taken at your child's school. Teachers and other staff can lend a hand in helping your child cope with the curiosity of their classmates.

Death of an important family member can lead to a need for solitude and withdrawal between the surviving family members, but it's important that children continue to feel connected. Disconnects cause loneliness and can heighten your child's sense of loss. There are several ways to help your child continue to feel connected to the deceased parent as well as the surviving.

Children need to be able to talk about their grief. Some simply need an opportunity to tell their story; where they were when they got the news, how they felt about it, who was with them. It's important they are given the opportunity to share these things.

Specific needs for children who are grieving:

  • truthful information regarding the death

  • reassurance they are not to blame

  • being heard and listened to

  • acknowledgment and acceptance of their grief

  • allowed to cope in their own way

  • plenty of people who will help and provide guidance

  • opportunities to remember the person who has died

Communication is Important

Open communication is a necessary and important tool in helping your child to cope with his loss. This can be challenging for the surviving parent who is suffering their own mountain of grief. There are several ways to help your child express her grief.

  • The easiest way is to talk about the deceased often, making sure to use his/her name.

  • Make copies of photos and distribute to children

  • Collaborate on a journal of memories to be added whenever a memory surfaces

  • Give special items or objects to your child. These can be jewelry, clothing, or other “treasures once belonging to the deceased.

  • Create special activities for remembrance rituals to be practiced every year at specific times, such as Christmas, the parent's birthday, etc. For instance, if the parent loved summertime, create a celebration for the 1st day of summer.

  • Take time to listen when your child is ready, however many times they may need to talk.

Sometimes Children Need Therapy

Sometimes children need outside help in dealing with their grief. It's not unusual for a child to attempt to “protect” the other parent by refusing to express their grief. Children often believe they will cause more sadness if they cry or talk about their own grief.

There are many normal signs of grief following the death of a parent, but prolonged behaviors may be a sign that professional help is needed. Entrenched and prolonging of the following may be indicators:

  • persistent difficulty talking about the deceased

  • anger and aggressive behavior

  • stomach aches, headaches, and other physical symptoms that are unexplained

  • difficulty sleeping

  • social withdrawal – not wanting to be with friends or others

  • eating excessively or having very little appetite

  • academic difficulties and concentration or behavior problems in school

  • persistent blame or guilt

  • self destructive behavior

If your child needs some professional help dealing with their grief, be sure to engage with a counselor who specializes or has experience in grief counseling for children.


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    • Terri Meredith profile imageAUTHOR

      Terri Meredith 

      6 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Why thank you! Glad you could stop by!

    • Terri Meredith profile imageAUTHOR

      Terri Meredith 

      6 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Thank you, but really, it was a long time ago and time builds a soft patina. Hugs right back!

    • fpherj48 profile image


      6 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      Terri....Now I feel even worse. Good Lord, girl, what an incredible trauma to suffer at the tender age of nine.....Bless your heart. I'm still trying to conceive of a 29 year old man suffering a fatal heart attack!

      I want to hug you. I've had my share of grief and tragedy....I guess that's what makes me so vulnerable and able to feel the pain of others.....Once again, wonderful hub, Terri.

    • Terri Meredith profile imageAUTHOR

      Terri Meredith 

      6 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Hey f....... Thanks for the kudos. I was nine when my father died of a heart attack. He was 29. I was a Daddy's Girl. It's true, we never really get over it. Mine died 9 days before Christmas, so it was especially hard, followed by his birthday a month later. I'll never forget waking up Christmas morning and opening presents that he had bought me and knowing he had done so just a few days before his death. That was almost 43 years ago and it feels like yesterday. No one knew what to really do for the four children left behind because everyone was in such a state of shock. I'm so glad that psychologists have come so far in their understanding of children and grief. Back then, the pressure to be strong for our mother was overwhelming but people thought they were saying and doing the right things. I will say the community really stepped forward. My father was a well loved man in our town. Ok, I'm done being all soppy. Thanks for the read.

    • fpherj48 profile image


      6 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      Terri....I am glad that I feel I have gotten to know you well enough to be very open and honest with you, without hesitation.

      I would have normally not even attempted to read a hub with this title or something similar. Two subjects that literally break my heart and cause me such pain and grief are children who have lost a parent and a Parent who has lost a child.

      I can believe that I am very strong and realistic and perhaps have seen and heard it all....even experienced it. However, the reality I must accept is that I become undone and reduced to a puddle of tears, in these circumstances.

      In your notoriously brilliant style, Terri, you have done an exceptional job with this sensitive topic. The advice you give is so valuable. I am voting UP+++ and sharing.


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