What is it?
Grief is what a person experiences when they lose something important. It includes thoughts, feelings and behaviours. The person might feel numb, anxious, sad, heartbroken, angry, scared or guilty. They might even feel relieved or peaceful at times. They 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 previous way of living (lose a job, have a divorce or get sick)
- lose an important possession
- lose a loved one (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?
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:
- become 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 their 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
- 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.
Children ages 5 to 9 may try to make sense of death or loss. They may start to think they can "catch" death or develop 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.
Children ages 9 to 12 may have the same general understanding of death and loss as an adult, but may not be able to express their 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 may have trouble trusting you if they feel like you aren’t being honest. Answer their questions as best you can and if you don't know the answer say that you don't know.
Encourage and reassure
Encourage your child 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 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 so it’s important to look at your own behaviour and think about what they may be learning from you. Talk about your feelings and accept support when you need it. If you show grief, it helps your child understand that it's okay to show grief. It also helps them see that everyone grieves differently.
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 will see and what will happen so they know what to expect.
Let your child 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 will not. 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.
Where to from here?
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
You can access a mental health professional by:
- getting a mental health assessment and support through your local Child and Youth Mental Health team (through a walk-in intake clinic in your community)
- contacting your Employee Assistance Plan (EAP), if you have this option
- contacting a private psychologist or counsellor:
For additional information about options for support and treatment in BC, visit the Find Help section of our site.