Chapter 2: Your unique child

Ages and stages

The expert says
Andrea Warnick, children's grief therapist, explains her reluctance to rely on ages and stages charts.(3:22)Video transcript
I've been there
Hamayun talks about helping his young son to remember his mother.(3:22)Video transcript
I've been there
David describes the different ways his boys grieved their mother's death.(3:22)Video transcript
I've been there
Valerie describes how each of her family grieved differently after the death of her daughter.(3:22)Video transcript
I've been there
David remembers the bittersweetness of the first Christmas with his children after the death of their mother. (3:22)Video transcript

I was surprised that my 4 year old wanted to know much more about ALS than my 8 year old. 


At each stage of development, children mature in how they express their emotions, use language, relate to other people and think about the world. As a result, age, personality and stage affect how they understand a situation, react to it and grieve. The information below may help you better understand and support your children.


A note about ages and stages

Please keep in mind there are no hard and fast rules about how children will or should grieve at a particular age. Your child may respond differently. 


Ages 0-2 years

Concept of deathWhile infants and toddlers may not understand that someone is dying or has died, they’re aware of changes in their environment and routine. They’re sensitive to their caregiver’s stress. They particularly notice a parent’s absence.
Common reactionsIrritability, needing to be held, changes in sleeping and eating patterns.
Ways to helpChildren at this age feel comforted and secure when normal routines continue as much as is possible, and they are cared for with kindness and understanding.
other considerations Toddlers often understand far more than they’re able to put into words so still benefit from simple explanations such as: Your sister Amanda died. Her body doesn’t work anymore and will never work again. Although they may have few or no memories of the person who has died, a bond can still be nurtured as they age and grow. This can be done by:
  • Telling stories about the person. Sharing photos or videos.
  • Describing the relationship the child was too young to remember. For example: Did you know that Grandpa used to love to bake bread? You have the same smile as your mom. Your sister loved to tickle your toes when you were a baby.
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Ages 5-8

Concept of deathWhile some children will understand that death is permanent, others are still learning abstract ideas of space and time and concepts like “forever.” For this reason, some children still think death is reversible.
Some common responses to griefChanges in sleep and eating patterns, nightmares, repetitive questions, feeling responsible for the death (I was angry at my brother so he died), concerns about abandonment, need for increased physical activity to work out big feelings, anger expressed towards caregivers.
Ways to help Give honest explanations using concrete language (he died instead of he passed away), provide opportunities to be active, encourage questions, allow for death to be explored through play, help your child develop the language to respond to questions such as Why does your mom never pick you up?
Additional considerations
  • At this age children need help to understand why someone has died.
  • The explanations must be repeated often before they understand that death happens to all living things and cannot be changed.
  • This can be frightening information for children as they start to realize that everyone dies and life is fragile.
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 Ages 8-12 

Concept of deathMost children understand that death is permanent and will happen to everyone. They tend to think about how the death will affect both their day-to-day life and their future.
Some common responses to griefFeelings of guilt and being responsible in some way for the death, feeling as though the world is no longer a safe place, worry about the safety and wellbeing of others, difficulty focusing in school.
Ways to help Encourage questions, when possible give choices such as Would you prefer to go to Uncle Brian’s Friday after school or Saturday afternoon?, talk to teachers about flexibility with assignments, provide physical outlets to work out big feelings, help your child develop the language to respond to questions such as How did your dad die?
Additional considerations
  • At this age peers become increasingly important. Many children struggle with feeling they’re “different” than their peers following a death in the immediate family.
  • Ask how they want information about the death communicated to their class.  
  • Spend time together so they have the opportunity to express their thoughts, feelings, and concerns. This shouldn’t be forced.
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Ages 13 – 18 

Concept of deathTeenagers understand that death is part of life and cannot be reversed.
Some common responses to griefQuestion the meaning of life, may prefer to receive emotional support from outside of the home (with peers, counsellors or other teens who are grieving), difficulty concentrating in school, sleep more or difficulty sleeping, experience overwhelming emotions, avoidance of emotions by keeping busy.
Ways to helpListen, try not to give advice unless it’s asked for, allow feelings to be expressed, try not to “fix” feelings, help connect with individuals/organizations who can provide support.
Additional considerations
  • A key stage of teenage development is moving toward independence from parents. 
  • Teens may feel torn between wanting their independence and envying younger siblings who don’t hesitate to seeking affection and talk about feelings with family.
  • Friendships are generally their main source of support and connection –  though friends may not know how to provide support in the face of grief.  
  • Peer group grief programs are often particularly helpful for this age group.
Click on each item on the left for more detail

Learn more in Module 3 Supporting a grieving child.