Managing Childhood Grief and Mourning: A Guide for Parents

by John M. Briley, MD, Pediatrics

We forget that children are not miniature adults and that is when our expectations concerning their behavior and self-expression can be problematic—especially when they are experiencing a loss.

Each child is unique, and how a child responds to death and loss is determined by many different factors: age, level of development, cultural differences, presence or absence of support (family, community, church, etc.), relationship to the deceased and their perception of it, and the resilience and strengths of that child. 

When a death that affects a child occurs, most adults don’t know how to manage the child’s grief. For example:

         --Should a child attend the funeral where the body is on display?

         --Should an adult encourage the child to kiss the deceased goodbye?

In all cases, children need help expressing their grief, and this help comes from us adults. Many adults mean well but don’t realize how hurtful their attitude can be. For example, I attended a funeral for a friend at his home. Many of us were there to comfort his widow, and while we were socializing in the house and enjoying the potluck many youngsters—family members and their friends--were playing in the yard.  As a game of tag developed, you could hear happy laughter.

I noticed their auntie getting perturbed, and before I could reassure her, she stomped out to the yard. She scolded them for what she perceived as insensitive and inappropriate behavior, effectively suggesting the children just didn’t care.

They were crushed! They did care! They loved their father, uncle, and friend. They were simply at a different stage of grieving, denial, and some magical thinking that he was just sleeping and would return the next day (only a few possibilities). I spent an hour with them trying to reverse the damage, but “Auntie said….”

This is the first of a series of articles I will write to help you understand the often-tricky management of childhood grief. There is a lot of literature on the subject that I will distill for you, and I will give you a short bibliography of some of the easiest-to-understand-books. You also have local resources: Nā Keiki O Emalia, and Hospice Maui.

By the end of this series of articles I hope you will understand what was wrong with the auntie’s approach, and how she might have better engaged with the children.

In my articles, I plan to address questions children commonly ask about death, and I hope this information will be of help to you. Such questions include: 

·      Does everyone die?

·      When do people (you, I) die?

·      When will (I, you) die?

·      Do we stay dead?

·      What happens when you’re dead?

·      What happens to us after we die? (Meaning, is there an afterlife? If so, are we in the same body we lived in? Any body we want? Can we (smell, taste, see, hear and feel)?

·      Do we die because we were bad?

·      Did someone die because we were mad at them?

This is not a complete list, to be sure. And, many questions have more than one correct possible answer, depending on the child’s age and the family’s cultural and spiritual beliefs.

If any of you have individual questions you would like me to address, please send them to contact@nkoemaui.org.

Aloha nui, and God bless.


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John M. Briley, MD is a general pediatrician, husband, father of three, grandfather of five, and writer of middle grader fantasy fiction.

ASK THE DOCBrooke Brown