Grief and Children

“You may associate grief with the death of a loved one, but any loss can cause grief, including the loss of a relationship, your health, your job, or a cherished dream.” (Help Grief and Loss)

It’s interesting how things can collide. I have been working on Facing Cancer as a Parent: Parenting when you have Cancer.  At the same time, we have been trying to navigate our children through yet another setback in their dad’s cancer journey.

Most people think that grief is something that they’ll deal with if someone they love dies. A process of grieving begins at the moment you realize you of a loved one has cancer. This is the great shift when the story you pictured for yourself changes. The outcome may not look anything like you’d hoped or imagined.

“Life will never be the same. You can never go back to that day before the clinic visit when you learned you had cancer.” -Melissa Turgeon, child life specialist with the Angel Foundation.

Often when a parent is diagnosed with cancer the entire routine of the family changes. There are some very practical losses that your child will experience or anticipate, such as:

  • A very active and involved parent can suddenly become ill and need to sit on the sidelines.
  • A caregiving parent may suddenly devote all of their time to the patient-parent, leaving the kids with a sense of loss.
  • Our 18-year-old developed a keen awareness that it was unlikely her dad would ever walk her down the aisle or hold her babies.

The losses are as individual as the people involved. It’s important to acknowledge. There’s a deep and profound loss, which will cause grieving in parents as well as children. How this manifests itself will be different in each person.

Grieving looks very different in children.

Research has shown that children and teens grieve differently than adults. It looks different, and it happens on a different schedule. In children, physical symptoms like stomachaches and headaches may be more prevalent than tears or anger.

Because they don’t have the same cognitive capacity as adults, they can’t maintain a deep level of grief to the extent that adults do. Instead, children will show their grief off-and-on, in waves, over a period of many years. As a child grows older, grief will bubble up at different periods in life. When they reach new developmental stages or important milestones such as first dates, graduations, proms, and birthdays, the grief will rise again.

It’s easy to misinterpret the symptoms of childhood grief. While grief is as individual and unique at the person who experiences it, there are some common reactions and behaviors that are often seen in grieving youth.

You may notice some of these signs and symptoms:

  • Physical complaints like headaches or stomachaches
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Lack of emotions (even about the death)
  • Separation anxiety
  • Feeling protective of parent and/or family members
  • Worrying about the safety of loved ones
  • Feeling responsible for the death (thinks that in some way he or she caused the death)
  • A change in behavior at school
  • Falling grades, hard time concentrating or paying attention, seems to “daydream” more
  • Changes in sleep habits
  • Changes in appetite
  • Regressing (acting younger than they are)
  • Acting overly responsible for their age
  • Social withdrawal
  • Loss of interest in friends and usual activities, even pushing away old friends
  • Worrying about another death occurring even their own death

Seeking out youth grief services early on in a parent’s cancer journey can be very helpful. At this time, the support system that you’ve assembled, including professionals, family, and friends will be essential to ensuring your entire family is able to process their grief and continue to live despite the pain each person is feeling.


Heather Erickson’s book, Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone who has Cancer, is available on as a paperback or Kindle.

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2 comments on “Grief and Children

Wow, I wonder sometimes if grief and depression are related to each other?
Or maybe which one is severe

There is an interesting chart on this page from Red River Valley Hospice, which compares the two. Great question!

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