Coping with the death of an important person in one's life is especially difficult for children. If the person died under traumatic circumstances or if the death was particularly traumatic to the child, that child may have a traumatic grief reaction.
What is the typical grieving process? How is childhood traumatic grief different from the grief a child would ordinarily experience? What can caregivers and professionals who work with children do to respond to it?
The information and resources provided here help address these questions.
Learn more about traumatic grief in the NCTSN Learning Center for Child and Adolescent Trauma . The Child Traumatic Grief Speaker Series features experts from the Network. Free CEs are available.
Table of Contents
The Typical Grieving Process
There is no right or wrong way to grieve, no "appropriate" length of time to experience grief following the death of an important person. The grieving process varies from child to child and changes as the child grows older. Children's reactions to death depend upon the child's age, developmental level, previous life experiences, emotional health before the death, and family and social environment. Common expected responses include:
- Emotional reactions such as sadness, anger, guilt, insecurity
- Changes in behavior such as aggression, loss of appetite, sleep problems
- Interpersonal difficulties such as social isolation, clinging, irritability
- Changes in thinking, including constant thoughts about the person, preoccupation with death
- Altered perceptions including believing the deceased is still present, dreaming about the person
American Hospice Foundation Grief Center
Information for employers, educators, and healthcare providers, as well as articles, consumer-friendly educational materials, and professional training tools on grief.
Association for Death Education and Counseling
Professional organization dedicated to promoting excellence and recognizing diversity in death education, care of the dying, grief counseling and research in thanatology.
The Centering Corporation
Organization dedicated to providing education on grief and loss for professionals and the families they serve.
Hospice Foundation Of America, grief resources
Wide range of resources on coping with grief, including articles, a newsletter, and a forum for sharing personal stories.
Open to Hope
Online resource center dedicated to helping people find hope again after loss.
Wendt Center for Loss and Healing
Resource for restoring hope and healthy functioning to adults, teens, and children who are coping with grief, loss, and trauma. Includes informational pages on grief and comprehensive resource lists.
What Is Childhood Traumatic Grief?
Traumatic Grief Tabs
Childhood traumatic grief may occur following a death of someone important to the child when the child perceives the experience as traumatic. The death may have been sudden and unexpected (e.g., through violence or an accident), or anticipated (e.g., resulting from illness or other natural causes).
The distinguishing feature of childhood traumatic grief is that the trauma symptoms interfere with the child's ability to go through the typical process of bereavement. The child experiences a combination of trauma and grief symptoms so severe that any thoughts or reminders―even happy ones―about the person who died can lead to frightening thoughts, images, and/or memories of how the person died.
Recognizing and Responding to Childhood Traumatic Grief
Helping Teens with Traumatic Grief: Tips for Caregivers describes how teens struggling with the death of someone close may feel and what you can do to help.
Helping Young Children with Traumatic Grief: Tips for Caregivers outlines how children struggling with the death of someone close may feel and what you can do to help.
Helping School-Age Children with Traumatic Grief: Tips for Caregivers gives ideas on what school-age children with traumatic grief may think and ways you can help.
Ready to Remember: Jeremy's Journey of Hope and Healing (PDF)
Ready to Remember tells the story of a 10-year-old boy's experience following the tragic death of his father. Jeremy is having a traumatic reaction and struggling at school and at home. Developed for the school age reader, with an additional caregiver guide, the illustrated book describes Jeremy's journey as he and his family get help and are able to enjoy happy memories together.
It's Okay to Remember (Video)
A moving first-person narrative illustrating how a family can move through the pain of loss and go on to heal. The family shares their personal experiences of the traumatic grief experienced by one daughter after her sister's sudden death. Helps parents, educators, pediatricians, and others who care for children to understand childhood traumatic grief.
Training video for mental health professionals that presents critical core components for providing trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy to children who suffer from childhood traumatic grief. Includes helpful demonstrations of each treatment component through role-plays conducted by children. The material represents the results of significant advances in the field of childhood traumatic grief and the unique collaboration of researchers and clinicians in academic and community settings throughout the country. To order a free CD of the video from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's store, click here
The Courage to Remember Curriculum Guide
Developed as a companion to the training video The Courage to Remember
, the guide presents a more in-depth description of the treatment components (both individual and group interventions) for children and caregivers who have been impacted by traumatic grief. Clearly organized and labeled for ease of use, it includes main therapeutic concepts, therapeutic activities, case examples, handouts, and resources. The material represents the results of significant advances in the field of childhood traumatic grief and the unique collaboration of researchers and clinicians in academic and community settings throughout the country.
Childhood Traumatic Grief Educational Materials
The following materials on childhood traumatic grief present general information and provide targeted guidance for the audience addressed.
Web-based curriculum for using Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) in children experiencing traumatic grief. Continuing education credit available.
Dougy Center for Grieving Children & Families
Organization that provides peer support groups, education, and training for people who are grieving a death. Online store offers a wide range of books, manuals, and brochures on the grieving process.
Internet community offering support to people dealing with grief, death, and major loss. Includes a special section for children: KIDSAID .
Review article on sudden, traumatic bereavement and its effects. Includes information on risk factors for
complicated bereavement and treatment of traumatic grief.
Information, tools, and resources for coping with loss due to suicide.
Below are some of the many resources on childhood traumatic grief available to parents and caregivers, children, and mental health professionals. Links to Web-accessible resources are also provided.
Note: All product descriptions are based on information provided by the publisher or manufacturer, and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the NCTSN. Inclusion on this site is not an endorsement of any product by the NCTSN.
Childhood Traumatic Grief Additional Resources - For Caregivers (2010) (PDF)
Childhood Traumatic Grief Additional Resources - For Children and Teens (2010) (PDF)
Childhood Traumatic Grief Additional Resources - For Professionals (2010) (PDF)
A comprehensive video program to help adults understand how children perceive death, respond to loss, and
grieve. Includes an overview of death from a child's point of view, information on the developmental stages of
grieving behaviors, and advice on how to create support systems for bereaved children. Also available as
part of correspondence course.
The Stamp Game: A Game of Feelings
(ages 6 & up)
An innovative tool for helping people identify, clarify, and express feelings. “Players will be able to relate more honestly to others as they learn to express feelings. As a result, players become more effective problem-solvers, and the identification and expression of feelings brings clarity to players' needs, which in turn leads to enhanced self-esteem. The game is a wonderful tool to equalize those who use words as a defense but have difficulty being emotionally honest, and for those who have great difficulty being articulate on any level.” Available from: AuthorsDen.com
, Mentor Books
, and SelfHelpWarehouse.com
Emotional Bingo for Children
& Emotional Bingo for Teens
"Everybody knows how to play Bingo, but this version requires players to identify feelings rather than numbers on their Bingo cards. Ideal for counseling groups or classrooms . . . not only helps children learn to recognize various feelings, it also teaches empathy—a trait associated with lower incidence of violent behavior. Game rules provide opportunities for children to discuss their own feelings and to respond empathetically to the feelings of others. The teen version features feelings that are common in adolescence." Available from: Creative Therapy Store
and Western Psychological Services
In addition to the camps listed below, local bereavement centers will have information about area camp programs.
Camp Erin, The Moyer Foundation
Nationwide network of bereavement camps for children and teens ages 6–17 who are grieving the loss of someone close to them.
Comfort Zone Camp
(804) 377-3430 / (866) 488-5679
Nationwide network of free bereavement camps for children and teens aged 7–17 who have experienced the death of a parent, sibling, or primary caregiver. The camps are held year-round across the country.
Judi's House/Heroic Journey
A seven-day wilderness adventure designed for teens coping with the death of a loved one. Enables teens to connect and build supportive relationships with other teens going through similar challenges in life. Funded by and delivered in partnership with Outward Bound.
Sibling Death and Childhood Traumatic Grief
The death of someone special can be very difficult and sad for a child or teen, but when it is a sibling who dies, the family faces a unique set of challenges. Siblings often have very complicated relationships. Sisters and brothers experience a range of sometimes conflicting feelings for each other. When a sibling dies, these past relationships and feelings can affect the surviving child's grief and the family's bereavement process.
Sibling Death and Childhood Traumatic Grief: Information for Families (2009) (PDF)
This publication offers caregivers information about the particular grief reactions that a child may have when a brother or sister dies and provides tips to help the grieving child. An extensive listing of books—organized by age of the intended audience—websites, and videos is included. Sibling Death and Childhood Traumatic Grief also offers self-care advice for caregivers to help them cope with their own grief reactions.
Below are lists of some of the many resources on sibling death and childhood traumatic grief available to parents and caregivers, children, and professionals. Links to Web-accessible resources are also provided.
Please note that all product descriptions are based on information provided by the publisher or manufacturer, and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the NCTSN. Inclusion on this site is not an endorsement of any product by the NCTSN.
Sibling Death and Traumatic Grief Additional Resources - For Caregivers (2010) (PDF)
Sibling Death and Traumatic Grief Additional Resources - For Children and Teens (2010) (PDF)
Sibling Death and Traumatic Grief Additional Resources - For Professionals (2010) (PDF)
Compassionate Friends. (1993). This healing path . Northbrook, IL: Film Ideas, Inc.
This 35-minute video addresses issues and concerns that affect those who are grieving the loss of a sibling. It includes an introduction by former Chicago Bear middle linebacker Mike Singletary, himself a bereaved sibling, and a discussion guide. The siblings interviewed share their pain, sadness, anger, and fear. They also discuss issues such as parental over protectiveness and their own hope for the future as they meet the challenge of their loss.
Traumatic Grief and Unconfirmed Death
An unconfirmed death refers to a situation in which the family does not know for sure whether the person has died and has no guarantee that the person will return. Such situations can occur during war, through kidnapping, or during natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes. In cases such as these, children may continue to hope, imagine, or plan on the person's return, and feel guilty or disloyal when engaging in rituals such as celebrating holidays without the missing person. The lack of certainty surrounding the death can be confusing and can mean that traditional—and potentially comforting—rituals such as a funeral cannot be observed. Unconfirmed death can also lead to traumatic grief reactions in children.
Coping with Unconfirmed Death: Tips for Caregivers of Children and Teens (2009) (PDF)
Unconfirmed death can be traumatic for children and teens, in part because the lack of certainty about the death makes it difficult for them to complete many of the tasks of normal bereavement. This publication offers caregivers advice on helping children deal with the complex emotions that arise when the death of family member or other important person in a child's life is suspected, but not confirmed.
Traumatic Grief in Military Children
Since 2001, thousands of military children have had parents killed in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many other children have had siblings, cousins, and other relatives die in war. Like other grieving children, military children who experience the death of someone special under traumatic circumstances can develop traumatic grief, which can interfere with their ability to grieve and to call up comforting memories of the person who died. Traumatic grief may also interfere with everyday activities such as being with friends and doing schoolwork. There are, however, unique aspects of military family loss that those who care for or work with grieving military children should be aware of. To find out more about military children and families click here .
Traumatic Grief in Military Children Information Series
Helping Military Children with Traumatic Grief: Tips for Parents gives information on how military children dealing with the death of someone close to them may feel and what you can do to help.
Helping Military Children with Traumatic Grief: Tip Sheet for Educators offers information on how children dealing with trauma and grief responses may feel and how you can help them.
This series provides culturally competent materials for educating families, medical professionals, and school personnel about how to better serve military children who are experiencing traumatic grief.
Traumatic Grief in Military Children: Information for Educators (2008) (PDF)
Traumatic Grief in Military Children: Information for Families (2008) (PDF)
Traumatic Grief in Military Children: Information for Medical Providers (2008) (PDF)
Mental Health America, Helping Children Cope With Loss Resulting from War or Terrorism
Overview of how to assist children who are coping with loss as a result of war or terrorist acts. Includes toll free number for accessing additional resources (800-969-6642).
Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS)
800-959-TAPS (8277) (24-hour hotline)
Comprehensive resource for all who are grieving the death of a loved one serving our country.