When children grieve, how can we help?

Here are some strategies to help our children cope with their emotions and learn how to deal with grief.

Grief is a natural and normal reaction to loss, and everyone experiences it at some point in their lives. This includes our children, despite our best efforts to protect them from such pain and sadness. It is not an easy topic to address, but we want to provide support during this difficult time to help our children cope with their emotions and learn how to deal with grief. Associate psychologist Denise Lim shares some strategies.

When might children experience grief?

While grief is often linked to death, it can also arise from changes or disruptions in a child’s life. There are different types of events that might shake a child’s sense of comfort and security – triggering expressions of grief. Examples include:

  • the passing of a loved one or a beloved pet;
  • divorce or separation of their parents;
  • serious illnesses affecting themselves or a family member;
  • change in caregivers;
  • moving to a new home or neighbourhood;
  • the loss of close friendships;
  • misplacing or losing an important object/ toy.

How might children react to a loss?

A man holding a sad-looking boy
No two children will experience grief in exactly the same way. Image credit: shutterstock.com

Grieving is unique to every individual. Therefore, no two children will experience it in exactly the same way. This is what grieving can look like in children.

  1. Physical: behaviours like crying, fidgeting, tantrums, loss of appetite, clinginess, thumb-sucking.
  2. Emotional: feelings like sadness, numbness, anxiety, anger, guilt, fear.
  3. Cognitive: thinking that involves patterns like avoidance, denial, distractibility, inattention, confusion.
  4. Social: interactions that include patterns like withdrawal, attention-seeking, opposition.

What contributes to the differences in which the child responds to grief are factors like these.

  • Developmental age and cognitive ability
    • This shapes children’s perception of the event, their level of understanding, and how they process their grief.
    • For example, a toddler may not yet understand that death is permanent and may repeatedly ask when Grandpa is coming back to visit him.
  • Past experiences with grief
    • Previous encounters with loss can have an impact on how children cope with new grief experiences.
    • For example, a child who was previously told that “boys don’t cry” when his favourite teacher left, may search for other ways to feel better after his caregiver returns to her home country.
  • The way adults communicate the loss
    • Whether adults communicate the loss to children, and the way it is done, can affect a child’s response.
    • For example, a child who was told that “Grandma went to sleep” might fear going to bed.
  • Nature of the loss
    • A child’s response is influenced by whether the loss occurred suddenly or was anticipated over time.
    • For example, reading stories about moving, and visiting their new house before moving, will likely help a child feel more ready for the change – as compared to another child who suddenly moves without any prior preparation.

How can we support children through their grieving?

A woman folding clothes with a girl
Ensuring consistency in daily routines and activities can provide a sense of stability and security for grieving children. Image credit: shutterstock.com

Every child experiences grief in their own way and time. Here are some ways that we can provide support.

1. Maintaining usual daily routines

  • Ensuring consistency in daily routines and activities can provide a sense of stability and security for grieving children, helping them regain a sense of normalcy in their lives.

2. Using age-appropriate language and explanations

  • Be simple and direct when explaining the situation. Use concrete language and terms instead of metaphors and abstract language (e.g., “She is in a better place” or “He went to sleep”) as they can be confusing for children.

3. Commemoration rituals and activities

  • Some examples include participating in events like funerals or farewell parties, engaging in a favourite activity to honour someone (such as dining at a restaurant that was a favorite of a friend who moved away), or creating a collage that symbolises the memories.

4. Preparing for the loss or change

  • Wherever possible, it is important to prepare a child for impending changes and potential losses to help them adjust and process their emotions more effectively.
    • Inform the child: Share information about the upcoming changes with the child. For instance, if you’re moving to a new home, describe the new place and show pictures of it.
    • Utilise books and stories: Reading books and stories about topics like moving to a new house, divorce, separation, or missing friends can be an effective way to help the child understand and cope with the changes ahead.

Remember that you are not alone in your efforts to support your child through their grief. If needed, do not hesitate to seek the assistance of your child’s doctor, or other professionals such as counsellors, psychologists or your local family service centres.

Suggested Readings:

Suggested Books about Grief for Children:

  • The rabbit listened by Cori Doerrfeld
  • The goodbye book by Todd Parr
  • Two homes by Claire Masurel
  • My new home by Marta Altés
  • Saying goodbye to Lulu by Corinne Demas
  • Paper planes by Jim Helmore


Fiorini, J. J., & Mullen, J. A. (2006). Understanding grief and loss in children. Vistas: Compelling perspectives on counseling, 7, 31-34.

Heath, M. A., Leavy, D., Hansen, K., Ryan, K., Lawrence, L., & Sonntag, A. G. (2008). Coping with grief: Guidelines and resources for assisting children. Intervention in School and Clinic, 43(5), 259-269.

Hume, K., Regan, T., Megronigle, L., & Rhinehalt, C. (2016). Supporting students with autism spectrum disorder through grief and loss. Teaching Exceptional Children, 48(3).

Norris-Shortle, C., Young, P. A., & Williams, M. A. (1993). Understanding death and grief for children three and younger. Social Work, 38(6), 736–742.

Price, D., & Barnard, C. (2020). Supporting young children experiencing loss and grief: A practical guide (1st ed.). Routledge.