death of a loved one is a part of the life cycle that brings grief to
children as well as to adults. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 4% of
single parents had been widowed; 13.9% of these households included
children under the age of 12 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001). In addition to
the death of a parent, many children may also experience the death of a
grandparent, sibling, or friend. Parents and teachers can play an
important role in helping children deal with loss. This Digest discusses
psychological tasks that appear to be essential to children's
adjustment, how children understand death and react to the death of a
loved one, and how parents and teachers can help children cope with
Children's “tasks” during mourning
The Harvard Child Bereavement Study (HCBS), co-directed by J. W.
Worden, interviewed and tested 125 children between the ages of 6 and 17
and their families. Standardized instruments, such as the Smilansky
Death Questionnaire and the Child Behavior Checklist, as well as
interviews, were used in this study. Of these children, 74% had lost a
father, and 26% had lost a mother. A similar group of 70 children who
had not suffered such bereavement were similarly studied. Worden
distinguished among four tasks of mourning for these children: (1)
accepting the reality of loss, (2) experiencing the pain or emotional
aspects of loss, (3) adjusting to an environment in which the deceased
is missing, and (4) relocating the person within one's life and finding
ways to memorialize the person (Worden, 1996, pp. 13-15). Christian
(1997), a professor of early childhood education who worked with
families with AIDS, observes that, unlike adults, some children may not
realize that they can survive without the deceased parent. Baker and
Sedney (1996), based on clinical experience and interviews, list early
tasks of bereavement for children including self-protection or the need
for assurance that they will be safe and cared for. Understanding the
death, another task, requires the provision of information to these
children on how or why the death occurred. Some experts believe that
vague abstractions may leave a child believing that deceased parents
could return if they wanted to do so (Corr & Corr, 1996, pp. 120-121).
As they mature, experts agree, children need to be able to ask questions
about the death repeatedly and to work through their developing
understanding of such a major event (Christian, 1997).
How do children understand death?
Experts suggest that understanding death involves comprehending the
concepts of irreversibility, finality, inevitability, and causality (Corr
& Corr, 1996). A study of 50 children between the ages of 7 and 12 years
explored the understanding of these concepts as affected by variables
such as age, experience, and cognitive development (Cuddy-Casey et al.,
1997). Based on experience gained from being counselors at the New
England Center for Loss and Transition, Emswiler and Emswiler (2000)
concluded that prior to age 3, babies may sense an absence among those
in their immediate world and miss a familiar person who is gone, but
they are unlikely to understand the difference between a temporary
absence and death. A preschool child may talk about death but may still
expect the person to come back. The National Center for Victims of Crime
(NCVC) has pulled together the work of several professionals who work
with grief in children. This group theorizes that before age 5, most
children do not realize that all people, including themselves, will die.
By ages 9 or 10, however, most children have developed an understanding
of death as final, irreversible, and inescapable (Worden, 1996, pp.
10-11; NCVC, 2003).
How do children react to the death of a loved
In the HCBS study of children ages 6 to 17 who had lost a parent,
children reacted with sadness and tears to the news. In most cases, the
crying subsided or lessened over time, although 13% of children still
cried daily or weekly even after a year had passed (Worden, 1996). Tears
often were triggered by the sight of others crying. Bereaved children
also became anxious over the safety of other loved ones or themselves.
Many children in this study expressed guilt about remembered misbehavior
or missed opportunities to express affection (Worden, 1996). Parents and
teachers may observe outbursts of anger and acting-out behavior among
children who have lost a loved one. Somaticization (physical complaints
without a disease or physical basis to account for them) increased
during the first year after the death of a loved one in 13% of the
children studied (Worden, 1996). The number of children experiencing
serious illness during the first year increased but fell to match the
percentage of nonbereaved children during the second year. A similar
pattern was observed in the number of accidents experienced by bereaved
children (Worden, 1996).
How can parents help?
Shaw, a specialist in bereavement, trauma, and loss, suggests that
parents explain death to children in simple, age-appropriate terms. Shaw
(1999) points out that vague euphemisms may be confusing and
frightening. She suggests that parents avoid trying to suppress the
child's tears or expressions of grief, help the child put feelings into
words, and provide honest answers to questions. Children can be given
the choice to attend the funeral or other memorial services. If children
choose to attend, parents can prepare them beforehand for what they may
see and hear, including the grief others may show. Parents can also help
children find ways to honor and remember the deceased. Parents may need
to reassure children that it is all right for them to resume normal
daily activities as well as to play and laugh again (Shaw, 1999).
How can teachers help?
Hogan (2002) suggests that teachers can ease a bereaved child's
return to school by offering immediate sympathy to the child, attending
the funeral, and talking to the class about the death before the child's
return. The teacher can be sensitive to the possibility that activities
related to family may make the child uncomfortable. Holidays often bring
renewed sadness, and teachers can help children cope with these times of
renewed sorrow. The teacher may also mention that others have lost a
loved one, so that the child feels less alone and different. Children
who have lost a family member can be reassured that in time they will be
happy again and that it is appropriate for them to play and have fun.
What are signs that a grieving child needs extra
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (1998)
cautions parents and teachers that, although most children grieve less
over time, counseling might be considered if children exhibit several of
these behaviors over an extended period:
Depression so severe that a child shows little
interest in daily activities
Inability to sleep, eat normally, or be alone
Regression in behavior to that of a less-mature
Imitation of the deceased person
Repeatedly wishing to join the deceased
Loss of interest in friends or play
Refusal to attend school or a persistent and
marked drop in school achievement
The death of a parent or loved one during childhood can have
profound and lasting effects (Harris, 1995). Further research on the
long-term effects of various interventions is needed. The literature
suggests that although adults cannot shield children from the sorrow
caused by the death of a loved one, they can guide and comfort them
through the process of mourning.
Children's books on death and grief
Those who work with grieving children often use literature such as
that recommended by Corr (2000) and others (Children's Books on Death
and Dying, 1997). These recommended titles include the following books:
Adler, C. S. (1993). Daddy's Climbing Tree. New York: Clarion
Books. A father is killed in a hit-and-run accident.
Anderson, Leone. (1979). It's O.K. to Cry.
Illus. by Richard Wahl. Elgin, IL: Child's World. Two brothers grieve
the death of an uncle.
Bartoli, Jennifer. (1975). Nonna. Illus. by
Joan Drescher. New York: Harvey House. A family deals with a
Jones, Penelope. (1981). Holding Together.
New York: Bradbury Press. Sisters help each other through the illness
and death of their mother.
Stiles, Norman. (1984). I'll Miss You, Mr. Hooper.
Illus. by Joe Mathieu. New York: Random House. Big Bird mourns the death
of Mr. Hooper. Contains notes for parents.
Viorst, Judith. (1971). The Tenth Good Thing
about Barney. Illus. by Erik Blegvad. New York: Antheneum. A child
learns about death through the loss of a pet.
Wolfelt, Alan. (2000). Healing Your Grieving
Heart: 100 Practical Ideas for Kids. Ft. Collins, CO: Companion
Press. Children 6-12 who have had a loved one die find ideas to help
with the grief.
For more information:
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. (1998). CHILDREN
AND GRIEF. Facts for Families Fact Sheet #8 [Online]. Available:
Baker, J. E., & Sedney, M. A. (1996). How bereaved children cope with
loss: An overview. In C. A. Corr & D. M. Corr (Eds.), HANDBOOK OF
CHILDHOOD DEATH AND BEREAVEMENT. New York: Springer.
CHILDREN'S BOOKS ON DEATH AND DYING. (1997).
University Park: Pennsylvania State College of Agricultural Sciences.
Christian, L. G. (1997). Children and death. YOUNG
CHILDREN, 52(4), 76-80. EJ 544 923.
Corr, C. A. (2000). Using books to help children and
adolescents cope with death: Guidelines and bibliography. In K. J. Doka,
LIVING WITH GRIEF (pp. 295-314). Washington, DC: Hospice Foundation of
America. ED 438 948.
Corr, C. A., & Corr, D. M. (Eds.). (1996). HANDBOOK
OF CHILDHOOD DEATH AND BEREAVEMENT. New York: Springer.
Cuddy-Casey, M., Orvaschel, H., & Sellers, A. H.
(1997, August). A SCALE TO MEASURE THE DEVELOPMENT OF CHILDREN'S
CONCEPTS OF DEATH. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American
Psychological Association, Chicago, IL. ED 414 532.
Doka, K. J. (Ed.). (2000). LIVING WITH GRIEF:
CHILDREN, ADOLESCENTS, AND LOSS. Washington, DC: Hospice Foundation of
America. ED 438 948.
Emswiler, M. A., & Emswiler, J. P. (2000). GUIDING
YOUR CHILD THROUGH GRIEF. New York: Bantam Books.
Harris, M. (1995). THE LIFELONG IMPACT OF THE EARLY
DEATH OF A MOTHER OR FATHER. New York: E.P. Dutton.
Hogan, N. (2002). Helping children cope with grief.
FOCUS ON PRE-K & K, 15(1), 3-6.
National Center for Victims of Crime (NCVC). (2003).
GRIEF: CHILDREN [Online]. Available: http://www.ncvc.org/gethelp/griefchildren/.
Shaw, H. (1999). Children and grief: How parents can
help in times of loss. PARENT AND PRESCHOOLER NEWSLETTER, 14(2), 1-2.
Shriner, J. A. (1996). YOUNG CHILDREN'S
UNDERSTANDING OF DEATH [Online]. Columbus: Ohio State University
Extension. Available: http://ohioline.osu.edu/hyg-fact/5000/5165.html.
Thomason, N. D. (1999). "Our guinea pig is dead!":
Young children cope with death. DIMENSIONS OF EARLY CHILDHOOD, 27(2),
26-29. EJ 584 450.
Tu, W. (1999). USING LITERATURE TO HELP CHILDREN
COPE WITH PROBLEMS. ERIC Digest. Bloomington, IN: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Reading, English, and Communication. ED 436 008.
U.S. Census Bureau. (2001). TABLE FG6. ONE-PARENT
FAMILY GROUPS WITH OWN CHILDREN UNDER 18, BY MARITAL STATUS, AND RACE
AND HISPANIC ORIGIN OF THE REFERENCE PERSON: MARCH 2000. Washington, DC:
Author. Available: http://www.census. gov/population/socdemo/hh-fam/p20-537/2000/tabFG6.txt.
Worden, J. W. (1996). CHILDREN AND GRIEF: WHEN A
PARENT DIES. New York: Guilford. ED 405 133.