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Children of all ages go through grief, sadness, and despair after losing someone they love, especially when that person is a parent. Even though the grieving process might look different from that of adults, it is important to be aware of the signs and support the child through it.
When someone a child loves dies, grieving is natural and expected. Grief is a normal response to loss, and the process should be encouraged, not suppressed. A child’s future mental health depends upon them experiencing all aspects of normal grief. While most of the information here focuses on a parent of a child dying, it could also apply to any loved one in the child's life.
Grieving involves many different emotions over time, all of which help the person come to terms with the loss. Children grieve differently from adults, and each child grieves differently. Each phase of growth and development may bring up new aspects of the loss and the child may grieve over and over. This is true even for children who were infants when the person died.
How a child grieves will be affected by their age, development, their relationship with the person who died, how the child is cared for after their loved one's death (especially if the person who died is the parent), how the child communicated with the family and how the parent(s) or caregivers communicate with the child and grieve themselves. Other changes, challenges, and losses might also impact how a child will grieve.
Children often will feel sad or show other emotions for a short time, then go back to their usual activities or go play with friends. Adults might mistakenly think that the child has already gotten over it, or that the child doesn’t fully understand the loss. Some children grieve in spurts; moving back and forth between grieving and being interested in everyday things. This can go on for years after the death. Others might have prolonged grief, and some might not even show signs that they are grieving.
If the loved one had a long and difficult battle with cancer, grieving might have started before the actual death. The child might be able to settle into a quieter routine while handling their grief. But caregivers need to keep checking in with the child – listen to concerns and find out if the child has questions. This can be hard at times, because children often respond in ways that may make them seem unconcerned, callous, or indifferent. It helps to remember that children feel the pain of loss, but are not able to express it the same way that adults do. It can take a long time to adapt to losing a parent. Sometimes emotional symptoms can become more severe and interfere with the child’s or the family’s life.
When children lose a loved one, they might not have the necessary coping skills needed to adapt to the loss. A surviving parent or caregiver may be overwhelmed with their own feelings in addition to the grief of their children. But it is important for children to feel adequately supported as they grieve to avoid developing psychological illnesses like anxiety or depression that might last a long time.
When a parent has a terminal illness, they often worry that their death might destroy their children’s ability to enjoy life. However, children can and do go on to live normal lives after going through a loved one’s death. With help, most children can be happy again and enjoy their lives.
Things that might help a child adjust include:
As the child matures, their understanding of what happened to their parent – and to them – may change and deepen. They may have more questions, or ask questions that you’ve answered before. Keep answering the questions honestly, and check to find out how much the child understands. They may need more support from you to correct misperceptions from their younger years, and integrate this extra information at their new level of understanding. This probably will happen a number of times as they get older.
When a parent dies, younger children are affected differently. A younger child may feel upset that the parent isn’t coming home day after day. They may ask the same questions over and over, like, “Where did he go?” Offer the child things that seem important from the parent who died, such as special belongings or gifts they may have left for the child. Some children find it comforting to have clothing or other items that had belonged to the parent, especially during the first year or so after the death.
Toddlers and preschoolers might think they did something to cause the death of a parent. Their behavior might even regress to things they did before, like being unable to use the toilet, or sleep through the night. Be prepared for trouble sleeping, and younger children may be clingy and not want to sleep alone. This usually gets better over the course of a few months. If available, it may help the child to go to bereavement groups with other children.
Most children like looking at pictures of their parent during happier times, and hearing stories about them. Routines are important, so try and get back to them quickly. Help the child get back to school and their usual activities when all the ceremonies are over.
Teenagers are still learning how to identify and express their feelings and thoughts. They may feel more comfortable spending time with their friends. It’s important to keep the lines of communication open to help support and guide your teenager as they learn to cope with their loss and grief reactions.
After a loved one dies, some teens cry or get very angry, while others want to spend time alone. Some need to be around friends and talk. Some teens might take on more responsibility, especially if someone they lived with died. Teens also find it comforting to have pictures, clothing, and/or other items that had belonged to the loved one.
If the loved one who died was a parent, teens may regret arguments with the parent, disobedience, and other issues. There may be guilt over things the teen said or didn’t say to the parent. Sometimes it helps for the teen to write a letter to the parent saying all the things they didn’t say before, as well as all the things they wish they could say now. Teens could also have trouble talking about the death of a loved one, out of fear of being distanced by their friends. For many teens, it helps to talk to an adult who can listen without judging them. There are also support groups and websites that are just for teens. These can be safe outlets for emotions and good sources of support and encouragement.
Depression and complicated grief in children can look different from an adult’s. Look for a change in behavior, like sudden changes in grades, withdrawal, or losing friends. Some children might seem more angry and irritable than depressed.
Complicated grief is different from the usual grieving process. It’s marked by how long it lasts, how much it interferes with the child’s life, or how severe it is. Sometimes, a child will seem to be stuck in the process of grieving. Grief reactions or mourning processes like this are not only unusual, but are also unhealthy. If it’s severe and lingers, the child might need professional help to get through the grieving process.
These problems can show up months or even years after the parent’s death. If a child seems to be having trouble, it could mean a more serious problem than the usual grief response to losing a parent. Extra help is needed if a child:
When a child shows any of these symptoms, it may help to offer more support. But if the usual ways of handling these problems aren’t working, or if the problem goes on for more than a couple of weeks, the child may need extra help. (For more serious problems, such as if the child is thinking about hurting himself or herself, help is needed right away.)
It may help to talk to the child’s pediatrician, school counselor, or with the social worker or counseling staff at the hospital where the parent was treated. These experts know how children tend to react to losses like this, and they may be able to offer ways to help with the problem. They can evaluate the child and make sure that any needed help is given. They may also be able to suggest books, videos, and/or children’s support groups that may help. Rarely, a child may need to see a psychiatrist for medicine or counseling
The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
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Last Revised: September 15, 2022
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