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Understanding the 6 needs of a grieving child

Grieving children express their feelings much more through their behavior than their words. Check some valuable tips in order to give the support they need.

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Usually a child in a grieving process doesn’t talk much. They act. For instance: A child can get lethargic but certainly she won’t have words to express this feeling or even understand why she feels this way; if she is feeling confuse she can easily get upset, or she can even pick a fight with other kids because of the way she is feeling. Always observe children carefully!

According to Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a researcher and scholar in the area, children have six needs for processing grieving:

Need #1: Acknowledge the reality of the death

The child needs to confront the real fact that someone she loved very much died and that this person will no longer be with her physically. Children tend to accept the reality of death in small doses. They allow a little pain and then come back to play. These doses is, not only normal but needed in order to make the first contact with grieving easier to handle.

A child can take years to integrate fully the reality of loss. As children grow and get mature, death assumes different and deeper meanings.

Need #2: Feeling the pain of loss

As any other person in a grieving process, children also need to go through this pain. Fortunately, most of them still haven’t learned hoe to repress and deny feelings. If they are sad, they usually allow themselves to be this way. You can help encouraging the child to talk about their pain, their thoughts and listen to them without judging. You can also be an example showing your own feelings. If you are sad, express your sadness in front of the child.

Need # 3: Remember the deceased one

When someone we love passes away, she/he lives in us through our memories. Grieving children need to remember the person who is gone and they need to help celebrating the life this person had. Don’t try to remove memories from the child in an attempt to make the child feel less pain. It is very good for the child to see pictures and videos, it is good to tell stories as well as listen to stories. Remembering the past makes the future possible.

Need #4: Developing a new self-identity

Part of a child’s identity is constituted by the relationship that she had with the person who passed away. Maybe she has had a dad and doesn’t have one anymore, or she could have been an older sister and she is the youngest one now. How did the sense of a child about herself change, in the face of the death of someone important? Nobody can fulfill the hole left by someone who passed away. Don’t try to find a dad/grandfather/best friend. Sometimes children are encouraged to take over the deceased one’s tasks and role and this stops the process of recovery and it steals the innocence of the children.

Need #5: Find meaning

When someone we love dies, we naturally question the meaning and purpose of life. Children tend to do the same in a very simplified way through questions like “Why do people die?”, “What happens to people after they die?” or “Can dad play soccer in heaven?” A child just feels the urge to ask this kind of question to an adult he/she trusts. Do not attempt to answer all questions about the meaning of life. No problem, and it may even be desirable to admit that you also feel confused with the same questions.

Need # 6: Receiving constant support from adults around

Grieving is a process, not an event. Children, like adults, will go through or be in the process for a long time.

The bereaved child needs compassion and the presence of a nearby adult, not only in the days or weeks after the death of a beloved one but also in the months and years to follow. As they grow and mature children will naturally process the grief in new and deeper levels. A child who goes through a grieving process surrounded by support tends to be a healthier adult.


Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, P.H.D., wrote hundreds of books about loss and grieving. Worldwide renowned by his support and overcoming loss messages. He is a member Association of Death Education, award winner by the Counseling`s Death Educator, he Works as Center for Loss and Life Transition Director in Fort Collins, Colorado, in the U.S.A.