Helping kids deal with grief in early childhood

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  Published on Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Helping kids deal with grief in early childhood

Library Home  >  Health, Wellbeing & NutritionParenting & Family Life
  Published on Wednesday, 26 August 2020
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For some children, grief is first experienced when a family pet dies, but for others, it’s the death of person close to them that changes life forever.

Losing a relative or friend brings about big challenges for little people, and they need adult support to communicate their feelings and learn to live with their loss.

This can be difficult for parents and care-givers who are grieving themselves, but fortunately, the National Centre for Childhood Grief (NCCG) is on hand to help bereaved children and their families process their grief and rebuild their lives.

Here we look at the services offered by the NCCG and explain how to recognise grief in children and support littlies who’ve lost a loved one.

What does the National Centre for Childhood Grief do?

The NCCG is a not-for-profit that operates a bereavement centre called ‘A Friend’s Place’ in Sydney. They provide free and unlimited grief counselling for bereaved children from the age of three (as well as paid grief counselling for recently bereaved adults).

The NCCG also provides education and training for individuals, schools and other organisations to help them deal with the grief of children and young people.

How does grief manifest in young children?

The NCCG says that young children grieve just as intensely as adults, and grief makes all people ‘an exaggerated version of ourselves’. This means that a loud person will become more extroverted and a quiet person will become more withdrawn.

Children will often regress to the behaviours and reactions they had when they were younger, and the NCCG says that a grieving child is likely to:

  • Eat, sleep or behave in a different way
  • Want to sleep with an adult for comfort and to make sure no-one else dies (the experts say this is understandable at first, but not a good idea in the long term)
  • Find it hard to concentrate at preschool or school
  • Get tired easily
  • Start wetting the bed, sucking their thumb or carrying a comfort item if they’re a young child
  • Want to be babied and talk like a baby
  • Have nightmares or grief dreams
  • Struggle with separations, e.g. being dropped off at child care and/or
  • Act out feelings, like anger, sadness and fear, instead of talking about them. For very young children, this could mean acting out the event that caused the death or the details of the funeral, and although this might seem macabre, it’s actually a normal and healthy way for them to process what’s happened.

How long do children grieve for?

Although a child may grieve when they lose a loved pet or leave a place they feel very attached to, it makes sense that children’s grief is, ‘Usually most intense and prolonged when someone they love dies.’

The length of their grieving will be affected by:

  • The type of relationship they had with the dead person
  • Whether the loss was sudden and traumatic, or slow and gentle
  • The age, personality and health of the child and
  • The type of support and understanding they get.

The NCCG explains that part of the child will grieve forever if they lose someone who was central to their sense of self and security, but there are ways to live with this grief, rather than being controlled by it as they grow up.

How can adults help children grieve significant losses in their lives?

It’s important that grieving children feel loved, understood and included, and to help them, ‘Learn to live with grief and remain connected for life’, the NCCG says:

  1. Children must have access to the truth. They need to know that they can ask any question without worrying about being told off, ignored or patronised. Truthful answers should be given (in a simple, direct and age-appropriate way) to help them keep their trust in the key adults in their life and in life generally.

    This applies whether a person has died or is dying, and because children take things literally, it’s important to use words like ‘dead’ or ‘died’ instead of ‘gone to sleep’ or ‘passed’. Adults should use simple biological explanations about death (e.g. “When you are dead, you cannot talk or move”) and always ask the child, “What do you understand about…” before answering their question and building on what they know.
  1. Children must be included as much as possible in what is happening in the family. This might mean spending time with a dying relative or going to a friend’s funeral to help them understand what death means and to ensure they feel part of all that is happening. 
  2. They also need a loving, understanding adult who can make them feel safe and secure. The NCCG says that, ‘Children need to receive confident reassurance from a trusted adult that, despite the distress they are feeling now, everything and everyone will be OK in the long term.’ If a parent can’t do this, because of their own grief, ill health or another reason, then it’s important that another safe, familiar person (like a sensitive grandparent, other relative or close friend) can take on this role until Mum or Dad can. 

The experts say it’s also important for adults to:

  • Model how to grieve, by showing their own feelings and labelling them, e.g. by saying, “I am feeling sad because Dad loved this music.”
  • Give children time out from grief, e.g. by giving them opportunities to play with friends, but also a way to return swiftly to their family if they have a change of heart.
  • Respect their need for personal space. The CCG says it’s ok for children to be quiet or withdraw to their room, and some youngsters find it helpful to put a sign on their door saying, ‘I need someone to talk to me’ or ‘I need to be alone’ or ‘I feel worried.’
  • Make their room a welcoming and safe place. It’s important to include things that conjure up happy memories and secure feelings, and also to ask the child what they’d like in their room if they’re feeling lonely or scared (e.g. a night light or Mum’s old teddy).
  • Encourage them to talk about the person who’s died, e.g. by saying “Granny would feel proud of you” when they win an award at day care, looking through photos together, or creating a memory box with items that evoke memories (e.g. pictures, jewellery and other special objects).
  • Restore a sense of order, with familiar rules and boundaries that make the child feel secure. The experts say grief isn’t an excuse for bad behaviour, so these rules and boundaries remain as important as ever.

Books can also provide reassurance for grieving children and create opportunities to talk things through. When Dinosaurs Die by Laurie Krasney Brown is recommended for young kids, and Open Leaves Books and Compassion Books have a range of grief-related titles for different ages.

How do you know if a child needs grief counselling?

The NCCG says that not all bereaved children need professional counselling, but it may be helpful if there’s any concern about a child’s behaviour after a person close to them has died.

To organise an appointment with the NCCG, you just need to call 1300 654 556 and there’s more information about their grief counselling services here.

Families can also seek help from:

At the end of the day, children need love and support to help them grieve. Although death is a fact of life, it’s not always easy to deal with, but it is comforting to know that counselling is available to steer families through tough times. 

What support is available for those who’ve lost a child?

Organisations like The Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement and GriefLine provide assistance to grieving grown-ups, and Red Nose Grief and Loss is there for people who’ve suddenly or unexpectedly lost a baby or child. Their website and 1300 308 307 phoneline provide support whether a parent has had a miscarriage, a stillbirth or lost an infant or child, and there is also assistance for extended family, friends, employers and work colleagues.



Childhood grief 
Grieving Children: Guidelines for Adults Who Care

This child care article was last reviewed or updated on Wednesday, 21 October 2020

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