Grief

Grief is our natural response to loss. Children and young people experience grief when they lose someone or something they feel close to.
Child standing in playground

Grief is more intense when the loss is more significant

The death of a family member, friend or pet is particularly hard for children and young people.

Other kinds of loss can also lead to grief reactions, including: 

  • separation of parents and family breakup
  • change of learning community or shifting house
  • loss of a friendship
  • relocating to a new country
  • disability or medical illness
  • having a family member in hospital for a long time.

Grief affects children and young people in different ways depending on their age, the disruption to their lives and their family and support networks. Sudden or unexpected loss, too, can increase the intensity of grief. 

  • How does grief affect children and young people?

    Grief can affect many parts of a child or young person’s life, including their emotions, thoughts, behaviour and physical health.

    They can feel their loss both at home and in the learning environment. Grief can make it hard to concentrate, it can disrupt sleep patterns and cause headaches and nausea. Without support at this challenging time, learning may suffer and there may be a long-term effect on their academic achievement.

    Some children and young people may need professional support from a mental health professional to help them deal with their loss and grief. While most will feel better over time, some may face mental health issues and be diagnosed with conditions such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

    How long does grief last?

    People may seem to be coping today, but not so well tomorrow. The intensity of feelings can change throughout the day, and grief can also be triggered by memories or special occasions. Over time, most people gradually begin to feel more hopeful about the future.

  • What signs should I look out for?

    Everyone experiences grief differently

    Grief reactions commonly include crying, anxiety, having bad dreams and clinging to families. Children and young people may also show their distress in a range of ways. For example, they may be angry, irritable or unsettled, or lose motivation for learning or the things they love to do (such as soccer practice or playing with friends). 

    It may be difficult for a child or young person to express their grief, or the grief may take some time to emerge after a loss. Children and young people will also grieve differently depending on their stage of development. 

    Here are some typical signs you can look out for in children and adolescents.

    Children
    • Shock – at first, children may express shock at their loss and not believe it’s real.
    • Regression – sometimes children show their distress by behaving in ways you’d expect from a younger child (for example, wetting the bed at night, sucking their thumb or using baby talk).
    • Anger – children may become angry and have tantrums.
    • Guilt – a child might feel that the loss was their fault.
    • Anxiety – children may be anxious about the safety of other loved ones, feel separation anxiety and become clingy.
    • Physical symptoms – these can include stomach pains, headaches and other aches and pains.
    • Sleep disturbances – it might be difficult to fall asleep, stay asleep and there may even be nightmares.
    • Eating – children may lose their appetite.
    • Concentration – it may be difficult to focus on school work.
    • Withdrawal – children may not want to play with their friends.
    Adolescents

    Adolescents have a greater capacity to understand the impact of their loss. They may express their grief in the same way as children, but other signs to look out for include: 

    • risk-taking behaviour
    • resentment – they may act out and be angry about their loss
    • acting cool, as though they’re not affected by the loss
    • extra responsibility – additional stress caused by looking after siblings or other family members or friends
    • unexpected mood changes.

    Adolescents will differ in how they want to grieve. Some want family and friend support, while others will want to deal with their emotions more privately. 

    Be You Professional Learning

    Learn more about observing children and young people’s behavioural and mood changes in the Notice module.

  • What can you do to help?

    Children and young people need lots of reassurance and support from caring adults to help them come to terms with a major loss. While grief is normal, feelings of anxiety or sadness may last a long time, especially if the child or young person loses a family member or if the loss occurs in traumatic circumstances.

    Knowing what to say and how to talk with children and young people about their loss and grief isn’t easy. If you have concerns, here are some ideas about how you can support them.

    Find out what has happened

    If you’re worried about changes in a child or young person’s behaviour and mood, the first step is to talk with them. Try to find out what has happened. Also, chat with their family, if they haven’t already approached you, to find out about what’s going on at home. This important background knowledge will help you support the child or young person in the learning environment.

    Acknowledge feelings

    Let the child or young person know you care and acknowledge their loss. For example, you might say:

    • “I was sad to hear that…”
    • “What can I do to help? Would you like to talk?”

    Let them talk about their feelings, ask them questions and offer your support. If they find it hard to explain how they feel, suggest some words (such as angry or sad) to start a conversation. Show an interest in other parts of their life too, so that their grief is not the only thing you talk about. 

    Honour their loss

    Help them to honour their loss by doing something that’s meaningful to them. Perhaps you could encourage them to write a diary, letter or song about their loss or collect personal possessions that will help them remember. 

    Offer additional help when needed

    Grief may be more intense at particular times of the year: anniversaries, birthdays and holidays. It’s helpful to offer extra support at these important times.

    Talk with leadership, school student wellbeing staff, psychologist or counsellor

    Sometimes children and young people keep grief inside until they can’t manage it by themselves anymore. If you think a child’s wellbeing is significantly affected by their grief, it’s important to seek the support of a health professional.

    Provide extra learning support

    Falling behind at school can only make worries worse. Help school-aged children and young people catch up with their learning. 

    Maintain routines

    Loss usually causes big changes in a child or young person’s life. Keeping up normal routines, as far as possible, reduces the number of changes and makes them feel more secure. 

    Be You Professional Learning

    Learn more about providing support for children, young people and their families, by helping them access information and internal and external supports, in the module Provide.

  • References

    Australian Child & Adolescent Trauma, Loss and Grief Network (2018). Information on Grief and loss. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved from http://earlytraumagrief.anu.edu.au/files/ACATLGN_grief_and_loss.pdf.