Stapleton Pediatrics Blog

Helping Kids Cope with the Death of a Loved One

By Nicole Erwin, MD

The death of a close relative or friend can be traumatic for anyone, especially a child. It may be difficult to know how to best help your child, especially if you are experiencing your own grief. Your pediatrician is an important source for education and support during such a difficult time. Please reach out to us at anytime, and here is some information that can help you help your child cope.
A child’s age will greatly determine how they will respond to the death of a relative. It’s important to know the developmental phases of understanding death in order to best know how to talk to and help your child.

Infants and Toddlers 
Infants and toddlers may perceive that adults are sad but have no real understanding of the meaning or significance of death.

Preschoolers may see death as reversible, or a separation, rather than permanent and may link the death with certain events and magical thinking.
Early Elementary School Age
Five- to nine-year-olds will start to comprehend the finality of death and that certain circumstances may result in death, but death is perceived as something that happens to others, not to oneself or one’s family.

Middle School Age
Middle schoolers comprehend death as a final event that results in the cessation of all bodily functions. They may experience a variety of feelings and emotions, and their expressions may include acting out or self-injurious behaviors as a means of coping with their anger, vengeance and despair.

High School Age
Most teens fully grasp the meaning of death in circumstances such as an automobile accident, illness and disasters. They may seek out friends and family for comfort, or they may withdraw to deal with their grief.
So what should you say and do to help your child? Here are some guidelines from Dr. Alan Wolfelt, director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colo.
- Be a good listener; give the child the opportunity to tell his or her story.
- Don’t assume that every child in a certain age group understands death in the same way or with the same feelings.
- Grieving is a process, not an event. Allow adequate time for each child to grieve in the manner that works for him or her.
- Encourage the child to ask questions about loss and death. It’s okay not to know the answers.
- Don’t lie or tell half-truths to the child about the tragic event, e.g., telling a child the deceased is “sleeping.”
- Give the child information at the level that he or she can understand.
- Create special rituals or ways to remember the loved one.
It’s also important to be aware of the wide range of emotions that children experience after a loss, including:
- Decreased concentration and attention (in school or home)
- Changes in sleep, appetite and/or mood
- Sadness or depression
- Changes in school performance
- Increased irritability, increased anger outbursts, or temper tantrums
- Changes in activities
- Withdrawal from family members, peers or activities
Everyone experiences grief differently. Be patient with your child, and take note of any symptoms of grief. We can help you assess the severity of symptoms and determine if you need to consult a grief counselor. As pediatricians, we are there for our families in good times and bad. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us.

Disclaimer: This information is not intended be a substitute for professional medical advice. It is provided for educational purposes only. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information.
Additional resources:'sGriefCenter.aspx
Posted: 12/15/2015 12:03:11 PM by | with 1 comments
Filed under: cope, death, denver, erwin, loved, nicole, pediatrician, pediatrics, relative, stapleton

I would like to thank you for sending this information out. My children lost thier father 4 yrs ago and we went to Foothills and then Judi's House and I cannot say enough good things about both organizations. They helped us through what was one of the most difficult experiences I have gone though. I highly recommended both and Dr. Brandon from Stapleton was also very supportive during that time as well. With thanks to all.
12/16/2015 10:03:26 AM

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