Understanding the Grieving Process in Children


 Understanding the grieving process, what to watch for and how you can help 

"Grieving process"

When you are sorrowful, look again in your heart and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. Kahlil Gibran

When we experience loss, we feel grief and a depth of emotion that seems to relate directly to the amount of love,  joy and pleasure we have received during our lifetime. From the moment of birth we experience degrees of loss.

  • Loss of the comfort ,warmth and security of the womb
  • Separation from our parents when staring nursery or kindergarten
  • Loss brought about by a change of circumstances, a house move or change of school
  • Loss experienced following the death of a family member or friend.

 So all children experience some degree of loss during their childhood. The grieving process represents a natural range of emotions that form an intrinsic part of growing up. Loss felt, results in varying degrees of grief according to the child’s personality and individual circumstances.  The grieving process is a form of emotional healing that occurs in four distinct stages.

Shock and disbelief: This occurs when a child’s view of  their world is shaken. Children often feel numb and strangely calm, even apathetic. This apathy is a form of defense that enables a child to cope. Occasionally shock can take on the form of anger.

Denial: This happens within two weeks of the incident and varies in duration form minutes to weeks. A child will appear to experience life in a calm way as if nothing has happened. this can be disconcerting but for children the process of fully coming to terms with something so profound to them can take time.

Growing Awareness: Emotion when it arrives can come in waves amd can often feel very strong and overwhelming. Feelings of loss, anger, guilt and even panic are common.

Acceptance: This usually occurs about two years after a death, a major separation and loss.

Children can find themselves ‘stuck’ in one of these stages and will need gentle support and guidance to move forward with their grieving process, these blocks occur in several forms and for several reasons: 

  • Refusing to let go and experience the loss
  • Refusing to believe it
  • Not being allowed to attend the funeral
  • Experiencing several losses and not having the time to grief each one
  • Thoughts and feelings left unsaid
  • Parents grieving so the child feels they cannot
  • Adult disapproval or dismissal of emotion and the ‘there-there’ approach

There are several patterns of behaviours that arise in children who have ‘stumbled’ in the grieving process and require more support and observation:

  • Most children, like adults fear anger so often feel unable to express it, but anger has its place in human emotion and if held and allowed to come to the surface anger can be a profound part of the healing process. If left unchecked it can manifest in rage and guilt.
  • Aggressive behaviour develops from feelings of hopelessness that are frequently experienced in the early stages of loss. A child will become hostile towards the adults around them and aggressive to other children. In most cases this pattern of behaviour changes, as the child moves through the 4 stages of grief.

The grieving process in children can be supported and helped along considerably by:

  • Ensuring you are available to the needs of the child with affection and warmth
  • Sharing your emotions, thoughts and feelings on the loss, so the child feels less isolated in their grief.
  • Listening to the child and mirroring the child’s feelings, so as to help them bring clarity to their emotions.
  • Not pushing it, only share feelings when the child is ready.
  • Informing teachers and other adults in the child’s life about their loss, should inappropriate or regressive behaviours in the child become manifest.

 Oh heart, if one should say to you that the soul perishes like the body, answer that the flower withers, but the seed remains. Kahlil Gibran

How are you dealing with your child’s sense of loss and what steps have you taken to help them with their grieving process?

Reference Source: University of South Dekota: Helping Children and Adolescents Deal with Grief. Garard A Jacobs PhD

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About Author

Living a life well lived, down a road less ordinary: I am a passionate truth-seeker who loves travel, chocolate and tea. I believe that life is short, conversation is all we have, and that sharing what’s important to both me and my family, is extraordinarily empowering. Things that make me heart happy include: my family, a beautiful sunset, the wag of a dog’s tail, the smell of rain, cloudscapes, the ocean, good music, good friends and travel.


  1. Great article, Rebecca! I really don’t look forward to the day that Baby has to experience his first loss… I’m sure many mamas will find this very helpful.

    Thanks for linking up at the Green & Natural Mamas Linky!

  2. I Love the Kalhil Gibran quote.
    The beginning of grieving for children can often be first pets, I can remember my daughter being absolutely devastated when her goldfish died. We then went on to loose our 3 precious rats, she wrote one of them a poem to say goodbye.
    I have known the devastating effects of children loosing parents or siblings and an interrupted or absent natural grieving process which in turn effects adults psychological well being.
    For my 10 year old I can acknowledge a grieving from a rambling happy toddler to a school girl who had to ‘work’ at school and didn’t just get to have fun/play all the time. She used to be sad to listen to old lullaby tapes, look at pictures, go over old memories it was as if she was grieving the loss of her formative years.
    Very painful for me I have to say…… such a sensitive soul.

  3. Great article! Experiencing the discomfort from grief is a challenge for all of us, but for children who’ve never experienced it before, its hard to know what is “normal” and what isn’t…which is why all of it is! I think the most important thing we can do as parents is let children know its okay to grieve and feel things. Actually its incredibly important! Discomfort passes and decreases over time and its a valuable lesson on how to handle loss though life and keep living.

  4. Bonny on

    Thank you for your article. I’m pinning it to review again when my mother passes away since my children are all close to her but know she doesn’t have many months left.