Children and the Experience of Loss: How to Help Children Grieve

 By Jenna L. Jebitsch, M.S., L.P.C., N.C.C.

As we progress through life, we are faced with many changes, and, at times, these changes can take the form of a loss. As adults, we can name many losses that we have experienced and the grief that we have felt due to these losses. Like adults, children also grieve when experiencing a loss. When we think of the losses in our lives, most of us think first of death, especially the death of a loved one. However, when we think about the experience of loss more broadly, we go through numerous losses throughout the lifespan as relationships end, we graduate from college or change jobs, experience illness, witness the aging of our parents and feel sadness over the loss of our own youth.

Accordingly, there are many types of losses that children face throughout childhood: death of loved ones and pets, divorce, changing schools or grades from year to year, moving to a new house and neighborhood (therefore losing their old house and neighborhood), losing friends and abandoning the comfort of childhood to enter the turbulence of adolescence. What we might consider routine or mundane changes in life, may be a child’s first experience with living through the grief process. Just like adults may feel loss when moving or leaving a job, children also feel a sense of loss when they move residences or leave a school or grade to start a new one. And children must also face bigger losses – death of family members or friends, natural disasters that can change their lives completely, having a family member deployed by the military or hard economic times that force the family to change its lifestyle completely.

Grief Reactions
When we experience a loss in our lives, we also experience grief. According to Therese Rando, a grief expert, grief can be defined as the process of psychological, social and somatic or bodily reactions to the perception of a loss, which is a natural and expected reaction to have when we have had an attachment to someone or something. Notice in the definition is the word perception: What one person may see as a loss, another may not. And this difference applies to children as well. Everyone experiences grief and loss differently and therefore expresses it differently, including what they see as a loss. Not all children will react the same way or see an experience similarly to their peers. Culture may also play a part in how children see loss and their grief response. However, when children do identify loss, there are similarities in the way children express grief, especially when looking at different developmental stages. Children under age three may express feelings of loss by increasing their dependence on their caretakers or not being as social as usual; children who are ages three to five may have temper tantrums or increase their activity. For school-aged children and adolescents, there may be noticeable changes in school performance and somatic complaints or symptoms of depression or anxiety such as fatigue, tearfulness and loss of appetite. Overall, adults should be mindful of any changes in a child’s behavior after experiencing a loss and help children express feelings of grief.

What you can do to help
Children can learn from adults in their life how to grieve in healthy, appropriate ways. To help children learn about grief and loss, adults can be role models:
• Grieve your own losses so they can learn from you. 
• Teach about the feelings associated with grief such as sadness,
guilt or anger. Discuss why you are sad.
• Ask about feelings and thoughts and observe the children’s
actions and behaviors. Do not ignore their feelings or dismiss how they feel.
• Normalize feelings of grief; communicate to them that it is okay to feel the way they do. For example, anger can be scary to feel towards a loved one who has died, or towards a parent during a divorce. Help them understand why they are having these feelings and that it is a normal part of grieving.

Interventions for Children

Ritualizing the loss is an important part of helping children grieve appropriately. In Western society, we have rituals for death and dying, but what about other losses? Rituals help children express themselves in their own way and helps guide them toward healing.
• Plant flowers or trees to symbolize a loved one or pet or the loss of a friendship
• Have a funeral or a memorial service for a family pet
• Discuss favorite memories of their classmates or teachers at the end of a school year
• Have them “say goodbye” to their house when they move, and discuss the favorite memories they have had there; take pictures or make a video of the house for them to watch later to help keep the memories alive
• Use expressive arts including painting, coloring, music, poetry or journaling to help express their feelings
• Make a scrapbook of a loved one using photographs and drawings
• With the help of an adult, light a candle symbolizing a loss and talk about it
• If they need additional help, have the child attend a support group such as Compassionate Friends or Ryan’s Tree (both in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania) or various hospice bereavement groups to help them deal with the loss of a loved one, or seek additional counseling services.

Children are faced with many different types of loss during childhood. As adults, we want to shield them from any unpleasant events and maintain their innocence. But, as part of the human family, they experience loss and grief like all of us. We have the ability to teach and model how we adapt to changes and losses in order for them to learn appropriate coping skills. Listening to children and giving the opportunity for children to talk about their experiences with loss and grief can help them resolve the negative aspects of grief in their lives and adjust well to any challenges they may face in the future.

Rando, T. (1993). Treatment of Complicated Mourning. Champaign, IL: Research Press.
Papalia, D. E. (2007). Human Development (10th Ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Fry, V. L. (1995). A Part of Me Died, Too: Stories of Creative Survival Among Bereaved Children and Adolescents. New York: Penguin Group USA, Inc.
Keckler, B. & Davis, D. (2005). From Here to There. Richardson, TX: Blue Sky Media Group.
Davidson, J. (2002). Grief Skills for Life: A Personal Journal for Adolescents about Loss. Walton, KY: Renew Center for Personal Recovery, Inc.
Heegaard, M. (1988). When Someone Very Special Dies: Children Can Learn to Cope with Grief. Minneapolis: Woodland Press.

Jenna Jebitsch is currently a fourth year doctoral candidate in Clinical Psychology at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) in Pennsylvania and a National Certified Counselor (NCC). In the past, Jenna worked as a clinician at KidsPeace on the Orchard Hills Campus in a residential treatment program for adolescent boys. She has facilitated grief and loss groups for adolescents, as well as adults with traumatic brain injury, and was a facilitator for the Children’s Bereavement Day Camp through Sacred Heart Hospital in Allentown, PA. Jenna has also been invited to facilitate children’s groups for the Compassionate Friends, a support group for families who have lost a child or sibling. She is currently completing her fourth year doctoral practicum at KidsPeace Children’s Hospital.