The Ellie Blog

Mental health tips and insights

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How to Help Kids Navigate Through Grief and Loss

By Erica Golofski MA LPCC ATR-P, Gina Young MSW LICSW, & Miranda Barker, LICSW

At some point in everyone’s lives, we experience grief and loss. When children are dealing with loss, their emotions can be particularly complex and hard to navigate. Whether it’s the death of a loved one, a divorce, or a significant life change, helping children cope with grief requires a compassionate and thoughtful approach. As caregivers, mentors, therapists, and educators, we play a pivotal role in providing the support, understanding, and tools necessary for children to navigate their grief journey and emerge with resilience.

An estimated 1 in 14 children in the U.S. will experience the death of a parent or sibling before age 18, combining over 4 million children on a national level (The New York Life Foundation, 2017). This statistic from six years ago was prior to the global pandemic COVID-19, wherein according to the Imperial College London, 258,800 children in the U.S. have lost a primary or secondary caregiver.

Children facing grief and loss will always have unique outcomes, even children within the family system, impacted by the same loss, but it’s important to note that children impacted by grief have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and PTSD compared to nonbereaved peers.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Grief and Loss in Kids

When kids lose someone that they love, it’s normal to see a rollercoaster of feelings. They might feel sad, confused, or even angry, but here are some other symptoms of grief and loss that are a bit harder to spot:

  • School avoidance/academic struggles
  • Emotional reactions that seem “unlike” the child (this could be anger, chronic fatigue, anxiety-attacks, suicidal ideation)
  • Feelings of shock, confusion, denial, sadness
  • Rough and boisterous play or repetitive play
  • Behavioral and emotional regressions, like acting much younger for an extended period or reverting to earlier behaviors (For example: Being hyper-clingy, using baby talk, thumb-sucking, and wetting the bed.) 
  • Excessively imitating or asking questions about the deceased; repeated statements of wanting to join the deceased; inventing games about dying or asking many questions about the death in specifics
  • Complaints of ailments like headaches and stomachaches
  • Avoidance of friends and withdrawal from personal interests

Ready to take the next step? Click the link below and get matched with the perfect therapist for your child’s needs.

How to Help Children Cope With Grief and Loss

As therapists, we understand how much this can shake up a kid’s world. We’ve seen firsthand how strong and resilient kids can be, but we also know they need a lot of love and support to get through it all. Here’s some advice and tips for parents and caregivers to help their kids navigate with loss.

  • Children can be concrete in their thinking. To lessen confusion, avoid expressions such as “passed away” or “went to sleep.” Answer their questions about death simply and honestly. Only offer details that they can absorb. Providing too much information can be overwhelming.
  • Allow children to talk about fears around death. Give them the opportunity to discuss their fears and validate their experience.
  • Children can be repetitive in their grief which can make adults concerned, however, their processing speed is slower. Normalize that it can take time to process.
  • Children can be physical in their grief. Offering reassurance about what is happening can validate their experience.
  • Children need safe adults and caregivers to talk about grief and loss, especially when cyclical anniversaries occur. Encourage them to create a tradition that helps honor their emotions.
  • Whenever possible, allow or offer choices in what they do or don’t do to memorialize the deceased and ways to express their feelings about the death.
  • Children thrive with routine, and at times the “changed behavior” within a family system might be the most difficult aspect of their grief. Supporting them in their environment with a schedule supports regulation.

Activities for Children and Teens Dealing With Grief and Loss

In the midst of grief and loss, kids often find solace in activities that provide a sense of comfort, expression, and connection, and they also need space to process what’s happening in their lives. For young kids, that might look like playing through the loss with dolls or toys, and for older kids, it can be helpful to talk about all of this with a trusted adult. When asked about different activities that caregivers or trusted adults can prepare, here were some of their suggestions:

  1. Find a therapist for individual therapy and family therapy (link to Ellie)
  2. Create a memory box (include photos, embellishments, cards, etc.)
  3. Write a letter to their loved one
  4. Provide the kid with a journal and art supplies to help process the loss
  5. Read books on grief (see our recommendations below)
  6. Make a music playlist about their loved one
  7. Grief summer camps, like Camp Erin

Books we Recommend About Grief and Loss for Kids

From illustrated picture books to insightful guides for older readers, these recommendations are crafted to gently guide children through their grief journey, fostering empathy, resilience, and hope along the way (keep in mind that some of these are affiliate links).

Healing isn’t a straight line, and it’s going to look different for each child. As you are helping a child cope with grief and loss, remember that you’re not alone: you have all of these tools, resources, and the therapists at Ellie to help you navigate.

Ready to take the next step? Click the link below and get matched with the perfect therapist for your child’s needs.


The Burden of Bereavement: Early-Onset Depression and Impairment in Youths Bereaved by Sudden Parental Death in a 7-Year Prospective Study
Pham S, Porta G, Biemesser C, Walker Payne M, Iyengar S, Melhem N, Brent DA
Am J Psychiatry, 2018 175(9):887-896

About the author

Gina Young headshot

Gina Young, LICSW

Director of Embedded/In-Home Programs

Gina is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker who is trained in Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) with children and adults and is also trained in Child Parent Psychotherapy. Gina has a passion for working with people across the age span and has speciality experience working with children ages 2-18 years old.… Read more