Childhood Grief and Traumatic Loss

"Children cannot begin to grieve unless
they know someone has died and
find that they themselves are safe"      R Corr

More than two million children and adults die each year in the United States from natural, accidental, homicide, suicide or undetermined cause. Those who are left behind face the task of grief and mourning after a loss to death.  Children face deaths with loss of a relationship and sometimes as a witness to a death that may have been violent.

In order to help children cope with grief it is important to be aware of our own emotions. A shared expression of our own feelings will help a child understand that crying or other emotions are part of a normal grieving process

How a child copes depends on many factors including:


Children may express their grief at unexpected times to ask questions or talk about the person who died. Children are individuals and need to express their feelings of loss. You can help the child by talking about their relationship with that person sharing favorite memories, drawing pictures, or writing letters.

Children may find comfort with memorabilia and joining others with funerals, memorial services, or other rituals. This can be difficult, but important for children have the same opportunity as adults to say goodbye. Memorial services can help children learn how to mourn, share their feelings, and continue the healing process.

Young children may be unable to sit through a funeral and need a person to assist them, perhaps to listen to words and feelings and share the experience of saying goodbye.  Children have questions. It is important to prepare them with simple explanations prior to their participation. Depending on the child’s age or experience they may want to know:


It is the responsibility of adults to provide attention, support, and education to help a child cope with a loss to death. The experience can help the child with future losses. Mastery of saying goodbye to someone can temper the fear of loss and help the child in the future to say hello to new people and begin new relationships.

This information may be useful at different times in your life. It is written to help you and the children you teach cope with the death of your loved one. The way you use the information may vary depending on family, cultural, and religious beliefs.  The information includes contemporary models, research, guidelines, and interventions as it relates to grief and loss.  This unthinkable topic continues to be reinforced by adults who have good intentions but just don’t know what to say or how to handle the emotions that are part of the deal.  It is my hope to create an awareness that will bring social change. To help find ways to teach and empower adults as they help children and youth to cope with the realities of life, death, and living.   

Personal Stories

When I was eleven years-old, I had a three year-old cousin who had leukemia, named Sonia. I remember my parents taking her and my aunt back and forth to doctors' appointments and to the hospital. My vivid memory was the day my aunt moved into our home with Sonia. A bed was set up in our living room with bags of awful smelling "alcohol like" medical supplies. Sonia had come home to die. My mother told me that I had to behave and be very quiet while she cared for Sonia. An aunt who was a nurse came everyday to give Sonia shots. I only remember the feelings of being sad and worried about what would happen next. I feared that this could happen to me. My father took charge of everything, from running errands to cooking. He even came home one day with a pair of brand new "black patent leather" shoes for Sonia. My mother took care of Sonia and my aunt and tended to whatever needs they had. My older brother and sister and I were rushed off to school as usual. I clearly remember the day I came home from school to see my parents looking very sad and crying. I knew something was wrong. Now, 47 years later, I remember that day vividly. The doctor came to our home to examine Sonia. He then had a private talk with my parents and my aunt. Shortly after he left, everyone gathered around crying as my aunt held Sonia in her arms. In the middle of the night, I was awakened by the loud cry of my aunt pleading "Why, oh why, dear God, did you take my Sonia away?" Sonia died that evening and shortly after she was buried wearing a beautiful pink dress and her brand new patent leather shoes. For the rest of my life I carried that pain and sorrow and still have images, smells, and memories of those days.

My interest in this topic comes from these childhood experiences, other personal losses, and from the work I do with children who have experienced grief and loss. I have worked as a Child Life Specialist for the past 28 years. My clinical experience has extended in working with hospitalized children with chronic illness, trauma, bum injuries, child abuse, to providing counseling to young victims of severe and fatal family violence.

My knowledge in child development has been my guiding tool when working with a terminally ill child, or telling a child about the loss of a parent. These special children, because of their innate courage and resilience, have given me a gift of understanding and appreciation. As a result, I have been able to help others understand children's reactions to and understanding about death and have trained hundreds of students and staff working with children and families.  

Articles & Resources


Working With Grieving Children


Standards for Grief and Mourning Professionals

Grief and Mourning for the Family and Friends of a Child who has Died

Grief And Mourning Article

Thoughts on Grief and Mourning by Michael Durfee, M.D

Facing the Issue


American Hospice




Grief Bibliography