Children have feelings that they need to express. Many of these will be similar to those voiced by adults, but there are some differences, depending upon the age of the child.

No child is too young to notice that a valued person is no longer around, and it is important to tell all children, in simple language, that the person has died and is not coming back.

In particular, young children find it difficult to grasp concepts of past and future, and only see the present as being real. They may therefore upset you by seeming callous, but this is a result of their need to concentrate on what is happening now. They also continue the need to explore the world and to enjoy it. This does not mean that they do not feel the sadness at times.

Keep talking

As parents/guardians/teachers we often want to protect children from the pain of grief. If we see ourselves having difficulty dealing with the death, we wonder how a young child could possibly cope with it. We may exclude children without realising and isolate them. We may leave them on their own to make sense of what is happening to them. As a result of trying to protect them, many children facing such a significant loss may feel bewildered, abandoned and all alone.

The way children learn to respond to death and loss in early life affects their reaction to future losses. If we, as adults, take the time to share with children their feelings when a pet dies, or to discuss the deaths they experience through books and television, we are helping to prepare them to handle the death of a significant person when it does occur.

How do children show grief?

Children may react to death in a variety of ways. Some will exhibit many of the following reactions, some only a few. Some will react immediately, some may have very delayed reactions.


  • 'My Mummy didn’t really die.'

When a child resumes play immediately or laughs inappropriately, it does not mean there is no feeling, but that the loss is simply too difficult to bear or understand at that moment.


  • 'How could they die and leave me all alone like this?'
  • 'Why didn’t Mummy and Daddy take better care of my grandad?'
  • 'Why did God let my dad die?'


  • 'Who will take care of me now?'


  • 'Grandad was perfect.'


  • 'If I hadn’t been such a bad little girl my Mummy wouldn’t have died.'
  • 'I was mad at my grandma. That’s why she died.'

Clinging or replacement

  • 'Don’t leave me, Mummy!'
  • 'Uncle Dave, do you love me as much as Daddy did?'

Bodily distress and anxiety

  • 'I can’t sleep.'
  • 'I feel sick just like my Mummy did before she died.'

Assume mannerisms

  • 'Don’t I sound just like my Daddy?'

How can I help my children?

With your loving and patient support, your child will be better able to work through the grief process and to adjust to life without their loved one.

  • Be direct, simple and honest. Explain truthfully what happened.
  • Encourage the child to express feelings openly. Crying is normal and helpful.
  • Accept the emotions and reactions the child expresses. Don’t tell the child how he should or should not feel.
  • Offer warmth and your physical presence and affection.
  • Share your feelings with the child. Allow the child to comfort you.
  • Be patient. Know that children need to hear ‘the story’ and to ask the same questions again and again.
  • Reassure the child that death is not contagious, that the death of one person does not mean the child or other loved ones will soon die.
  • Maintain order, stability and security in the child’s life.
  • Listen to what the child is telling or asking you. Then respond according to the child’s needs.
  • Allow the child to make some decisions about participation in the family rituals, such as what to include in the funeral or attending the funeral, visiting the grave. Be sure to explain in advance what will happen.
  • Offer opportunities for remembering the person who died. Encourage telling stories, recording memories, collecting photos/special items, use a memory box for storage.

Common explanations that may confuse children

Some of the explanations we use with children can make their grief process more difficult or cause problems later in life.

Your mother went on a long journey ...

  • 'Then why is everyone crying?'
  • 'Why didn’t she say goodbye?'
  • 'I thought holidays were supposed to be fun.'
  • 'Daddy, please don’t go away.'

Your aunt was sick and had to go to hospital ...

  • 'If I get sick, will I go to the hospital and die, too?'
  • 'I don’t want my daddy to go to hospital for an operation.'
  • 'The doctor is bad – he made Aunt Sue die.'

It was God’s will. God was lonely and wanted your daddy, he was so good that God wants him in heaven ...

  • 'I’m lonely for my daddy. I need him more than God does. God is mean!'
  • 'If God wants the good people, I’m going to be as bad as I can. I don’t want to die.'

Your grandfather went to sleep ...

  • 'I don’t want to go to bed.'
  • 'I’ll make myself stay awake all night so I won’t die too.'

Teenagers’ experiences

While teenagers may have an adult understanding of the death and grieve in a more adult way, they can often feel overwhelmed. Also bear in mind that the effects of bereavement and the normal processes of adolescence have many common features, such as challenging or risk-taking behaviour.

Young people are more aware of the future and grieve for the fact that their mum, dad or a significant other person will not be there to see them leave school, get a job and have children.

They may feel very insecure and uncertain inside yet compelled to fit in with their peers who are becoming more independent.

Teenagers may also feel that they have to take on the role of the parent who has died in order to support the family unit.

How to help bereaved teenagers

  • Be yourself: your ability to understand, stay constant and keep routines and boundaries in place will create a sense of safety when all else is in chaos.
  • Be prepared to listen: let them lead the conversation, they need your support and presence more than advice.
  • Help them to identify support networks: both at home and school.
  • Encourage guilt-free fun: remind them that having fun does not mean they will forget the person who died.
  • Read our articles and share and talk through them with those you are supporting: in particular, read see the related pages below.

For support from the Katharine House Hospice bereavement service and other organisations, including those that specialise in supporting children, see Where to turn to for support when grieving.

Related pages

  • Supporting a grieving friend or relative: it can be very difficult to know what to say to a loved one who is grieving; here we give advice starting with the early days and then looking at the weeks and months ahead.
  • What is grief?: there's no right or wrong way to grieve and here we look at how the experience of grief is unique to each person.
  • What are the emotions of grief?: we look at some of the thoughts and emotions that you may feel during a time that can be both very difficult and upsetting.

The EPiC Resource Centre is kindly sponsored by Cleenol: working for a cleaner, safer, kinder world.