How to Help Children Grieve the Death of a Parent

Tall adult in jeans and coat holds hand of child in dress coat with long hair as they stand at a gravestone on a rainy dayFrom the time children are born, they count on their parents to provide a sense of safety as they learn about the complex world around them. When a parent dies, it may create intense emotional upheaval for children old enough to understand what has happened. Often, children do not know what to do with those feelings. Surviving parents, guardians, and other adults have a difficult task in helping such children process their grief and move forward.

Perhaps the most important thing anyone can offer a child who has lost a parent is time. Grief does not happen on a specific timetable, and the process of grieving may look very different from one child to the next.

In addition, adults can encourage children to share their feelings safely and without judgment. It is helpful to refrain from using words such as “should” or “should not” when talking to children about a loss or trauma they experienced. Adults can also facilitate a sense of togetherness or shared struggle to ensure children do not feel alone in their grief, and encourage compassion and support among other kids or people in the child’s life.

The specific challenges facing children who have lost a parent include:

  • Accepting the significance of the loss (it changes them forever)
  • Allowing the grief process to unfold on their own terms as they work through painful feelings
  • Transitioning into an environment where the parent is no longer physically present
  • Maintaining a sense of connection with the lost parent while allowing themselves to live their life

Surviving parents have the unique challenge of providing support for their children as well as processing their own grief. Some parents may feel inclined to grieve in private, believing it is in the children’s best interests to shield them from displays of pain. However, it is appropriate and healthy to allow children to see adults grieving because it signals that is okay to feel the impact of the loss and to openly express their own grief. The objective is to help children understand they are loved, supported, and far from alone in the grieving process.

Often one of the biggest challenges children face when they lose a parent is to accept that they may be experiencing many different feelings. This is normal, and it’s important for children to know that. It can be confusing when they feel emotions such as anger and yet miss their parent at the same time. Children may believe it’s better not to show emotion and that if they don’t, they may be able to forget about the parent they lost or forget the pain they feel. Caring adults need to let children know that when someone they love dies, it’s important to remember them and cherish the positive memories they have.

It’s important to help children understand that the goal is not to “get over” what happened, but to move toward acceptance. They will never get over it; the loss of a parent changes a child from that point on.

It’s important to help children understand that the goal is not to “get over” what happened, but to move toward acceptance. They will never get over it; the loss of a parent changes a child from that point on.

Adults often find it difficult to know what to say to children who have lost a parent. Others may be wary of bringing up difficult feelings in children or reopening emotional wounds. As a result, the topic may be avoided altogether, creating an “elephant in the room” effect and contributing to feelings of isolation.

The primary goals for caring adults in the lives of children who have lost a parent are to encourage them to accept their feelings rather than push them away and to offer support whenever it is needed. Often during the grief process, children will move back and forth through the various stages of grief. Being available to listen whenever they’re ready to talk may be what is most comforting to them.

Ultimately, children need to know that there is no “right way” to get through the grief process. Everyone experiences it differently, and children should be encouraged not to judge themselves if the way they experience their grief is different from the way someone else does.

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  • Stuart

    December 12th, 2016 at 9:01 AM

    Both of my parents passed away when I was a teenager and so it made it nice to know that my aunt, uncle and cousins were there for me. It hurt of course to lose them, but I transitioned to a home where there was no lack of love.

  • Chris

    July 28th, 2019 at 8:07 PM

    My 14-year-old nephew lost his mother in a car accident last week. He is having a lot of trouble talking and expressing any emotion. But he was very close with his mom (my sister). If anyone would like to offer any therapeutic advice I would appreciate it. Thank you

  • The GoodTherapy Team

    July 29th, 2019 at 8:05 AM

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  • jason

    December 13th, 2016 at 12:07 PM

    You would hope that no child would ever have to experience this kind of pain any more than a parent should have to lose a child and bury them but it is a fact of life that death is always coming at some point.

    I hope that for my own children I am at least given the opportunity to say goodbye because I think that this is one of the hardest things, when this happens and it is totally unexpected.

    I guess you can never be totally prepared for this kind of loss though.

  • Liz

    October 30th, 2018 at 8:30 PM

    You are missing one huge thing. Kids always think everything is their fault. When my mom died when I was 9 I thought it was because I had been bad. It wasn’t until I was 12 that I realized it wasn’t my fault. This is a huge thing that should be in the forefront of this issue.

  • Amaya

    December 13th, 2016 at 2:26 PM

    I never had any of that after my parents died. I was made to live from relative to relative, with everyone always making me feel like I was some big imposition on them.
    I was like hello? I didn’t ask to be an orphan and I need someone in life to help guide me through all this stuff and I just didn’t have too much of that.
    I try not to dwell on it too much now, it is what it is you know? But there are times that I think of all that I probably could have done in life had things been a little more stable for me growing up.

  • Ann H.

    May 2nd, 2019 at 3:12 PM

    Amaya; I only just saw this site, and read your post. I feel very understanding of the plight you went through after your parent’s death. Sad that you were treated without the understanding and love necessary to cope with a such an emotional loss, additionally, I doubt you were able to talk about it. I lost my dad from a physical death, and my mom from emotional
    withdrawal afterwards. Not being able to talk about my dad was more devasting to me emotionally than his actual death.
    You have all my support, and if yu ever need to talk, please contact me.

  • Nat

    January 12th, 2020 at 11:02 AM

    Amaya, wow, on some level I feel the same. I was 6 when my mother passed away. My dad tried not to talk about it, but was talking about finding me a new mom. All the pictures and everything that reminded me of my mom – were put away…my dad thought that would be the best for me. I am in my 30’s now and I still struggle with being accepted with step family. Yes, I know they “love and accept”, but its not the same, because my moms story was a hush hush. . . so confusing. I try not to dwell on it, but somedays it hard.

  • madelyn

    December 14th, 2016 at 2:10 PM

    If the adults in their lives also don’t know how to process that grief then surely they don’t know how to allow the child to experience that great loss either.

  • Grace

    December 15th, 2016 at 7:48 AM

    The worst cases are when the child is made to feel like they have done something wrong by trying to hold onto a part of that parent that has been lost.
    They know that it causes pain to the people around them and that makes them believe that the best thing to do is not talk about that person at all.

  • Rosie

    March 29th, 2018 at 8:06 AM

    My grandchildren has lost both their parents, in which their father was my son. It helps the children to know I loved their mother very much and that I miss her. I tries to overshadow them with plenty love and so does their aunt (my daughter). I tell them any time they wants to talk and however they feel is alright. I am teaching them to not hide their feelings. I have a cousin and a friend(whom is their teachers) and they are very understanding to them. I am making sure they are surrounded with plenty of family, friends, a loving church family and that they will have a stable home and spoiled ( in the good way). I tell them they are not responsible for what happened to their parents and that God has something very special in store for them. The mom was cremated but at least they can visit their fathers grave.

  • Elyse

    April 18th, 2018 at 6:21 PM

    My dad has stage four lung cancer, he has given up because no treatments have worked and it became to much for him. He’s doing terrible and is starting die day by day. Im fourteen and i’m having a terrible time. I am going to miss my father so much. I don’t know what I am going to do. Please pray for him.

  • Sara

    April 25th, 2018 at 12:23 PM

    Elyse~ My dad also has cancer. I try to enjoy each moment I have with him right now. He is still here and there is still time to make memories. I know what your going through. Cherish your time with your father while you still have him. Ask him questions you always wanted to know from him. Take lots of pictures and video’s if you can. Hope this may help.

  • Cindy

    May 14th, 2018 at 1:55 PM

    I lost my husband to lung cancer on 25,4 18 , my 11 yo son has been left traumatised and heartbroken , I wish I could help him, but we both miss my husband so much,treasure the time with your dad , my son never left his daddy’s side for 3 days , I’m hoping those times will help him remember how much his daddy loved him . Take care of yourself .

  • Yvonne

    April 27th, 2018 at 7:30 AM

    I married a widower with two daughters and they are still grieving. Helping them to get professional counseling while doing my best to be informed how to help them and practice those things has been working. I appreciate everyone’s input here.

  • Nat

    January 12th, 2020 at 11:06 AM

    Just remember when they have an outrage and even if they start comparing you to their mother ( I have gone through that) – they are not angry at you per say, they are angry at them selfs for not being able to let go and give themselves some time.

  • steve

    June 3rd, 2018 at 1:19 PM

    So good to hear that people are taking action to support the children here. i lost both my parents as a teen and had no help with talking to anyone. Years later, I had an emotional crisis, got help and processed through a lot of unresolved feelings. I did not have some breakdown when the feelings came out but I was very confused why I felt so much grief years after my parents’ deaths. So, please allow the grief of those young ones to be supported as best as you can. “Stiff upper lip” is a bad way to handle it.

  • Samantha

    June 8th, 2018 at 3:25 PM

    I need some advice my daughter is 16 she lost her father about 9 months and she’s bioplar and suffers from anxiety and depression and now fathers day is coming up and I don’t now how to help her shes takes meds but I don’t think they are helping everytime her and her boyfriend get into it or she gets up with someone else all her anger comes out and she says I’m the worst girlfriend or the worst daughter or I can’t do anything right she’s afraid if her boyfriend Leaves for a day he won’t every come back cause every boyfriend has done this to her and her dad chose this wife over her and the last time they spoke it was angry words and she didn’t get to see him before surgery just after he die and there was no closure how do I help her get through this and talk about

  • Kurt R.

    June 15th, 2018 at 3:39 AM

    This is an excellent article. All of us, not just surviving parents, will benefit from discussing and being more open. My sister was very young and still living at home when our father died at at age 48. Our mother did what she thought was right and tried to shield her daughter by only crying and grieving in private. The negative effect on the two of them was very deep and extends to this day, 40 years later. Neither of them have ever fully recovered.
    and now, without any guidance or similar experience or reason that I can think of (except perhaps witnessing her grandmother and aunt struggle even to this day), my own daughter, Merissa Russell, writes and directs this beautiful animated short. She wants to bring this subject out in the open, into the full light of day.
    please view and support.
    Thank you.

  • Kerry

    May 28th, 2020 at 2:41 AM

    My daughter is 11 years old, she has watched her mothers health deteriorate over the last 5 years and has just past away. Her mother and I have been separated/divorced for 3 years now. Her mother decided to stop treatment for brain cancer as she was tired after 10 years of poison. The 2 of them resided with her grandmother who did everything possible to keep me out of their lifes even though we live in the same town. FYI, wife wanted the divorce. Now that she has passed, I will be getting full custody and our marital home back, it has been vacant. I’m reaching out because of the rare circumstances at which all of this took place, about learning the best way to rekindle our relationship and help her process the loss in the best way possible. Any additional info on a child grieving the loss of a parent would be greatly appriciated.

  • TK

    June 18th, 2020 at 9:27 PM

    i have lost my wife due to heart failure related to breast cancer in May 2020. We have a 15 years old son. He rarely wants to speak about his mother’s death and i tried to cox him occassionally to talk about it and cry if needed to. But he just avoid the topic. I am worried that he will suffers mental depression if he keeps everything bottled inside him, and i am not sure should i let him grieve in his own way or try to make opportunities for him to speak about it. Any advice would be appreciated. Thanks.

  • cheryl

    July 13th, 2021 at 9:16 PM

    My favorite nephew died in 2018 from an overdose. his girlfriend had his two young children ages 4 and 2 came to live with me after his death. She had problems and eventually, she left the children with me and left to do her own thing. there’s a lot I’m leaving out but my question is should I tell the children who are ages 6 and 4 now that their mother is now missing officially? they are speaking of her more lately because they haven’t seen her and that was how she was even after she left. so I think they feel something isn’t right. the osbi have already come and taken a DNA sample from the youngest child. It’s not looking really good especially with the horrid rumors floating in this small town. if we should tell them how do we? wouldn’t telling them help them be prepared if the news comes and it is bad?
    lost and concerned

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