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Death in the Family & Loss of a Child

Studies have shown that when children experience the death of a close relative, such as a brother, sister, or parent, they often feel guilty. While most of us experience some guilt when we lose a loved one, young children in particular have difficulty understanding cause-and-effect relationships. They think that in some way they caused the death; maybe their angry thoughts caused the person to die. Or they may view the death as a punishment.

“Mommy died and left me because I was bad.” Children may be helped to cope with guilt by reassurance that they have always been loved and still are. It also may help to explain the circumstances of the death. The notion that death is a form of punishment should never be reinforced.

The death of a close relative also arouses feelings of anger in both adults and children. We feel angry with the person who died for causing us so much pain and sorrow or for leaving us alone to cope with life. We feel angry at the doctors and nurses who could not save our loved one, and we feel angry at ourselves for being unable to prevent the death.

Children are more apt to express their angry feelings openly, especially when they’ve lost someone on whom they depended for love and care. It is difficult enough to hear anger directed toward the dead and even more so when it is expressed in what appears to be selfish concerns. But anger is part of grief, and we can help children by accepting their feelings and by not scolding them if they express anger or fear. Children need to be reassured that they will be cared for.

Some children turn their angers inward and become depressed, withdrawn, or develop physical symptoms. If this behavior persists over several months, professional help may be needed.

After a Child’s Death

The death of a child is particularly tragic and may create special pitfalls for families. As parents, we must share our grief with our surviving children, for they too will have grief to share, but we must try not to burden them with unrealistic expectations and concerns. For example, there is a tendency to idealize the dead, and we must take care not to make comparisons that could lead to feelings of unworthiness and increase the guilt of surviving children.

It is also natural to deal with grief by turning our attention to the living. It is understandable that the loss of a child may lead to too much worry about the welfare of our other children. However, we must resist any tendencies to overprotect them or smother their efforts to grow independent, and we must encourage them not to over-identify with or try to replace the lost child. Each child must feel worthy in her own right and must be free to live out her own life in her own way.

Death in the Family & Loss of a Child


J.W. Worden, Ph.D.

J. William Worden, PhD, ABPP is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and holds academic appointments at Harvard Medical School and the Rosemead Graduate School of Psychology in California. He is also co-principal investigator for Harvard's Child Bereavement Study, based at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is the author of Personal Death Awareness; Children & Grief: When a Parent Dies; and is co-author of Helping Cancer Patients Cope. His book Grief Counseling & Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner, now in its fourth edition, has been translated into 12 languages and is widely used around the world as the standard reference on the subject.

APA Reference
Worden, J. (2020). Death in the Family & Loss of a Child. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/death-in-the-family-loss-of-a-child/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 7 Apr 2020 (Originally: 28 Apr 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 7 Apr 2020
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.