Grief & Loss

What is Grief?

Grief is what you experience when you lose something important. It includes thoughts, feelings and behaviours. You might feel numb, anxious, sad, heartbroken, angry, scared or guilty. You might even feel relieved or peaceful at times. You might also have very negative thoughts or act out.

Everyone experiences grief differently and for a different period of time. Feelings may also be stronger or less noticeable, based on how important the loss is.

People may feel grief when they:

  • lose a way of living (lost a job, have a divorce or get sick)
  • lost an important possession
  • lose a love done (a pet or loved one dies)
  • expect to lose someone or something (a loved one is very sick)

Grief is natural, and many people start to feel better as time passes. But some people need a bit of extra support from a professional to help them through a difficult period.

 

How do I know if it's grief?

Children and youth grieve differently than adults. Young children may not be able to describe how they feel and their age may affect how they react. A child that loses a grandparent may not seem bothered until an important holiday comes and the grandparent isn't there.

A child or youth may show they are grieving by the way they behave. They might:

  • becoming very quiet or very talkative
  • act out, be disruptive, have temper tantrums
  • have a hard time playing with friends or doing schoolwork
  • cling to people they trust
  • go back to old behaviours like wetting the bed
  • talk as if the person they’ve lost is still present
  • act like the person they’ve lost
  • worry a lot about the future, their health and the health of loved ones
  • carry around pictures or items that remind them of someone they’ve lost
  • try hard to look like they’re okay or normal
  • seem not very bothered by the loss
  • turn to alcohol, other drugs or other risky behaviour if in teens

Their behaviour may seem odd or upsetting. The most important thing is to help them feel safe and secure.

Grief at different ages

Infants may feel grief but not understand things like death, illness or loss. They may show signs that look like separation anxiety such as:

  • looking for the person they've lost
  • crying
  • clinging to caregivers
  • temper tantrums

Preschool children may understand that someone isn't around anymore, but not concepts like death. It may look like the child doesn't care or isn't bothered by the loss. They might also believe that their own thoughts, actions or wishes caused the loss. The child may use pictures or other items to feel close to a loved one that left or passed away.

Age 5 to 9 may try to make sense of death or loss. That can lead to belief in things like they can "catch" death or it can cause a lot of fears, like the fear of dying. They may take words literally, so if you say a loved one is "gone," the child might be angry that no one is looking for them. Children at this age may also still believe that their thoughts, actions or wishes caused the loss.

Age 9 to 12 may have the same general understanding or death and loss as an adult, but may not be able to express these thoughts and feelings. They may find comfort in family and cultural beliefs and values.

Teens may understand death as an adult would, but have a hard time with bigger questions, like the meaning of life and death. They may feel at odds with their desire to be independent and their desire to help the family through a loss. Teens may also try hard to look "normal" to fit in with their peers. They may hide their feelings or avoid them by keeping very busy. Some teens turn to risky behaviours like alcohol or other drugs, thinking they can't be harmed and this is a way to "test" death. 

 

What can be done?

Be honest with them

Tell your child the truth in words they understand. This may help to lower feelings of fear or anxiety. Children can often tell that something is wrong, and have trouble trusting you if they feel like you aren’t being honest. Answer their questions and if you don't know the answer say that you don't know.

Encourage and reassure

Encourage the child or youth to express how they feel. Talking won't make them feel worse. Let them know that strong feelings are normal and it's okay to grieve. Activities like storytelling, are and play help children express themselves. They may have very real fears about death and abandonment and they may wonder who will take care of them.

Model healthy ways to grieve

Children learn from parents and others close to them, and so it’s important to look at your own behaviour and think about what they may be learning. Talk about your feelings and accept support when you need it. If you show grief, it helps the child or youth understand that it's okay to show grief. It also helps them see that everyone grieves differently.

Educate them

Help children or youth prepare for new situations like visiting a loved one in the hospital or going to a memorial service. Talk about what they’ll see and what will happen so they know what to expect.

Include them

Let the child or youth decide how involved they want to be. Some children may want to visit a loved one in the hospital or go to a memorial service, but others don’t. Parents can also help by including their children when they talk about an expected loss, like when a relative is very sick.

Let teens find help

Teens may prefer to talk with someone outside of their family who may listen more objectively and with less emotion. This may help the teen work through their own feelings.

Keep the topic open

Children and youth may re-experience loss during holidays or other important times. Let them know they can talk about their feelings no matter how much time has passed.

When to talk to a doctor or mental health professional?

If a child or youth is having a hard time continuing with life after several months, it’s best to talk to a doctor or a mental health professional. They can help the child work through their feelings. Here are signs that a child may need some extra help coping with grief:

  • isn’t interested in social activities like playing with friends
  • has a hard time with schoolwork or refuses to go to school
  • stays very focused on the loss
  • seems very sad or hopeless
  • has a hard time trusting others
  • has a hard time eating or sleeping
  • is often scared of being alone

 

Where to from here? 

Talk to your doctor and look for help from a mental health professional by:

For additional information about options for support and treatment in BC, visit the Finding Help section of our site.

Below you will find some key resources. A full list of resources are on the right hand side bar. 

Grief and Loss (BC Children's Hospital)
Grief support resources and information on suicide, murder, accident or other sudden death.

BC Children's Hospital

This is an agency of Provincial Health Services Authority, providing provincial tertiary mental health services to the citizens of British Columbia. Programs include: Adult Tertiary Psychiatry, Geriatric Psychiatry, Forensic Psychiatric Services, Child & Adolescent Mental Health, Women’s Reproductive Mental Health, as well as the Provincial Specialized Eating Disorders Program for children and youth located at the BC Children’s Hospital.

Provincial Health Services Authority

Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA) is one of six health authorities – the other five health authorities serve geographic regions of BC.

Ministry of Health

British Columbia Ministry of Health

RBC Children's Mental Health Project

RBC Children’s Mental Health Project is RBC's cornerstone “health and wellness” pillar; RBC Children’s Mental Heath Project is a multi-year philanthropic commitment to support community-based and hospital programs that reduce stigma, provide early intervention and increase public awareness about children’s mental health issues.

BC Children's Hospital Foundation

Through a wide range of fundraising events and opportunities, The BC Children's Hospital Foundation is united with its donors by a single, simple passion - to improve the health and the lives of the young people who enter BC Children's Hospital every day.