Do Children Understand Grief?

img_0595 It had been an emotional evening as children, teens, and adult family members gathered in early December to prepare for the difficult holiday season ahead.  All of the GriefWorks children and their families had lost a significant loved one.  Some of the children had lost a parent.  Others had lost a sibling or a grandparent or an aunt or uncle.  Although all of the losses in the children’s grief support group were unique, all of the mourning families had one thing in common.  They were all missing their loved one at a time of the year when the importance of family being together is stressed and so valued.

The most touching element of the annual GriefWorks Commemoration is a candle lighting ceremony in which children and family members can honor and remember what their missing loved one has given them.  One by one the GriefWorks families came forward as their loved one’s name was called.  Each child lit a candle and had an opportunity to share some important, valued memory about their loved one.

Once the families had all lit a candle, we gave staff members and volunteers who had lost a loved one during the past year an opportunity to participate also.  One by one the staff and GriefWorks volunteers lit candles and shared their losses with the group.

Just two months prior to the commemoration ceremony my 76 year-old mother had died of lung cancer.  I struggled with the pros and cons of lighting a candle in tribute to her.  Somehow at that time it seemed too soon for me to be able to share my very personal grief publicly.  I wasn’t sure if I could light the candle without having a major grief outburst in front of a group of impressionable, vulnerable children.   (Yes, I know that grief outbursts are healthy but I, just like you, struggle at times with when and where it is appropriate for me to mourn publicly.)

But when the opportunity came, I lit the candle in honor of my mother.  I shared with the group my mother’s name, the details of her death and how much I would miss her.  My tears welled up as I spoke, but the devastating grief outburst that I had feared did not happen.

After I closed the commemoration service with a prayer, one of our five year olds came up to me.  She held out her arms and asked if I would give her a hug.  The mother of this five year old had been brutally murdered.  I never turn down a hug from a mourning five year old.  As I leaned down to hug her, she whispered in my ear, “I know you miss your Mommy too.”

I continue to be amazed that a five year old child can reach out from the depths of her sorrow over the loss of her young mother to comfort me, a man old enough to be her grandfather.  We adults sometime wonder in our efforts to reach out to mourning children if they get our intended messages about grief.  Believe me, children and teens in grief "get it".

Written by Larry M. Barber, LPC-S, CT author of the grief survival guide “Love Never Dies: Embracing Grief with Hope and Promise”  available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble or

The grief survival guide is also available in Spanish as “El Amor Nunica Muere: Aceptando el Dolor con Esperanza y Promesa” on

Larry is the director of GriefWorks, a free grief support program for children and their families in Dallas TX