Factsheet 39: Dealing with children's grief - sadness

  • Children, like adults, experience intense sadness when someone they love dies.
  • Sadness makes children (and adults) feel vulnerable, so they often cover their sadness with anger, which makes them feel stronger and more in control.
  • Expressions of sadness are care eliciting – a way of telling the world ‘I hurt, be gentle with me’.If expressions of sadness are not familiar to the child, or are not modelled by adults they trust, they may elicit care through physical symptoms: by showing a level of distress when they are physically hurt that seems disproportionate to the event; or by producing problems that are likely to gain the attention of caregiving adults.
  • Children benefit from seeing adults openly express sadness. However, if the adult’s crying is loud or prolonged, they may fear that something terrible is about to happen. It is important to label the feeling, and to reassure the child that sadness doesn’t make bad things happen; that it’s healthy to cry. They will feel less concerned if they don’t feel shut out; if they are able to stay in contact with their grieving parent.
  • When children see their parents and other caregivers express sadness at the death of a loved and valued person, they are reassured that they too would be valued and missed if they died. Attempts to diminish their pain by offering replacements too soon (e.g. a new pet / house / sibling/ parent etc) teaches them that everyone and everything is replaceable; that they are replaceable, and they may become afraid.
  • Wherever possible, slow down the introduction of replacements until everyone has had sufficient time to grieve openly and to begin to learn about a new world in which that person no longer exists.
  • Children, like adults, feel helpless in the presence of intense grief. They need to feel that they can do something to make a difference. Tell them later if you appreciated their attention; the tissues they passed; the hand they offered; the toys they gave to comfort. If they do nothing but ‘just be’ there, tell them that helps, and that they don’t really need to fix anything.

Factsheet reproduced from Dianne McKissock’s book The Grief Of Our Children with the express permission from The National Centre for Childhood Grief.