ERIC Identifier: ED475393
Publication Date: 2003-06-00
Author: McEntire, Nancy
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Elementary and Early Childhood Education Champaign IL.
Children and Grief. ERIC Digest.
The 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 loss.
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 ONE?
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,
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 HELP?
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
Depression so severe that a child shows little interest in
Inability to sleep, eat normally, or be alone
Regression in behavior to that of a less-mature child
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
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
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 grandmother's death.
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
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
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: http://www.aacap.org/publications/factsfam/grief.htm.%20
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. Available:
Christian, L. G. (1997). Children and death. YOUNG CHILDREN, 52(4), 76-80. EJ
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
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,
National Center for Victims of Crime (NCVC). (2003). GRIEF: CHILDREN
[Online]. Available: http://www.ncvc.org/gethelp/griefchildren/.%20
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:
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:
Worden, J. W. (1996). CHILDREN AND GRIEF: WHEN A PARENT DIES. New York:
Guilford. ED 405 133.