April 3, 2024

Supporting Children Through Grief

Written by Dr. Sandy Portko, Early Childhood Expertise

Brooke Aernouts
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The following story mentions cancer and the death of a parent to young children. Please remember to take care of yourself in whatever way that means to you, before and/or after reading this article.

About 10 years ago, I was working at a local childcare center. We had a family enrolled with two daughters, and both parents had different types of cancer. They were going through various treatments, and the dad started to get better, but the mom was not improving. Unfortunately, she passed away shortly after. There was an outpouring of love and support for the family, especially the newly single dad, and the girls, who were 2 and 4 at the time.

A couple weeks after the girls’ mom had passed, the older daughter came into my office with a picture she had drawn. There was what looked like a large bird flying over a jail cell with a stick person in it, and a bunch of stick people were gathered around the jail cell. I asked her to tell me about it. She pointed to the bird and said, “That’s an angel,” then pointed to the jail cell and said, “That’s mommy, trapped in the hospital bed. The angel is taking her away.” She touched each of the stick people around the jail cell: “This is daddy, this is sissy, this is me, this is grandma and grandpa.” The whole time she was explaining the picture to me, she wasn’t crying and didn’t seem upset in any way. She explained it as calmly as if she were describing what she ate for breakfast.

Children go through lots of changes in the preschool years. There are many theories about how and what kids learn and how they process what’s happening in the world around them. Between ages 3 and 4, children usually understand the world based on what they see, not on what is actually true or real. They are only beginning to think symbolically – pretending that there is really soup in a bowl, putting on a stethoscope and checking their teddy bear’s heartbeat. How they think about things is guided by what they see and what they experience themselves.

When young children experience death, especially the death of a parent, they may go through lots of different behaviors – continue playing, pretend like the death didn’t happen, cry more than usual, or have accidents even if they are toilet-trained. They might also be angry, withdrawn, more tired than normal, or overactive. Children need to feel supported through all of these behaviors and feelings. No feelings are ‘bad’ feelings – it’s more about how they feel those feelings. It’s also important for us (as adults) to show our own emotions, so children know that emotions and expressing them is safe – especially sadness, fear, and anger.

Talking to kids about death can be so hard, especially when we are going through grief ourselves. Just as you hold your child and comfort them in their grief, make sure show yourself the same kind of compassion in your grief. Remember that everyone experiences loss and grief in some form throughout their lives, so no one is ever alone in grief. One way to build personal resilience is reaching out to ask for help. Our community has many organizations and groups to support children and families experiencing grief and loss, including Ele’s Place, Gilda’s Club, and Emmanuel Hospice. There are great children’s books for various ages, including “The Invisible String,” “The Next Place,” “The Rabbit Listened,” and “The Goodbye Book.” There’s also a great resource library through the National Alliance for Children’s Grief: https://nacg.org/resource-library/.

This blog was written by Brooke Aernouts, who serves as the Trauma and Resilience Coordinator at Family Futures. Brooke is a certified trainer for the Standards of Quality with the National Family Support Network as well as the Protective Factors Framework with the Children’s National Trust Fund. Additionally, she is a member of the Michigan Association for the Education of young Children.


If you are currently experiencing grief, depression, or similar emotions, please don’t hesitate to ask for help when you need it. See the resources linked below for more information. 

University of Michigan guides and resources for grief and bereavement

Good Grief: Educational tips and information on navigating grief

988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline – Depression resources

National Institute of Mental Health – Coping with Traumatic Events

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