Grief in Children

Grief in Children

This past month, I’ve been working on getting my upcoming book Facing Cancer as a Parent: Helping Your Child Cope With Your Cancer, published. At the same time, we have been trying to navigate our children through yet another setback in their dad’s cancer journey. There is a section of the book which focuses on grief in children. Because of what we are going through, this section of the book was especially difficult to write and edit. It was also especially important.

What is Grief?

“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)

Most people think that grief is something that they’ll deal with when someone they love dies. In truth, the process of grieving begins at the moment you realize you of a loved one has cancer. This is a huge shift in your life 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.

When a family learns that a parent has cancer, everyone’s routine changes. Some people are surprised when they see grief in children. Consider that there are some very practical losses 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.

Did that last one surprise you?

Brain development continues until children reach the age of 26. Unfortunately, grief in children ages 18-26 is often unrecognized. Grief in children looks different depending on the age and stage, as well as the personality of the child. Often, grief in children is manifested by physical symptoms like stomachaches and headaches. In fact, these signs may even be more prevalent than tears or anger.

It’s important to acknowledge the deep and profound loss each member of the family is experiencing. How this looks will be different for each person.


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.

Signs and symptoms of Grief in Children :

  • 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

A Different Schedule

Research has shown that grief in children and teens also happens on a different schedule than in adults. 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.

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.


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In 2012 doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan, with stage IV lung cancer. Since then, our family has been learning what it means to face cancer. I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness. My goal is to help people face cancer with grace.

My book Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer, is available on

I also blog at Heather Erickson Author/Writer/Speaker




Originally posted 2018-03-12 07:00:01.

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2 comments on “Grief in Children

I know a few cancer survivors in our family and I have seen how much it impacts the whole family… This is an excellent post to understand grief in children who often feel lost in this situation. I don’t have kids but I am sure many parents are going to find your post very helpful.
Rajlakshmi recently posted…5 on a Scooter and other talesMy Profile


Thank you, Raj. I loved your post! What fun memories.


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