grieving child

What 5.6 million Young Americans Have in Common with Prince Harry - and Why It Matters

Like Prince Harry, one in thirteen US children – 5.6 million, or 7.7% – will experience the death of a parent or sibling before age 18. This 2022 calculation from the Children’s Bereavement Estimation Model marks an increase of 700,000 since it was first developed in 2018, reflecting higher death rates among people aged 27-46 from multiple causes including Covid. 

Grief may not be obvious, but the suffering is real. Imagine yourself at age 6 or 10 or 16 – or a child you love – losing a parent. Look around your community and realize that many young people are grieving. It’s a critical issue because the effects of a death permeate their entire life and can interfere with their development if unaddressed. 

Children grieve according to their age, but loss at any stage of growing up is an earthquake that irrevocably shifts the young person’s inner and outer terrain. Volunteering at a children’s grief center, I witness such struggles firsthand, evoking my own early mother loss that I wrote about in my memoir, The Art of Reassembly

In Their Hearts and Minds

The enormity of loss can be difficult for children to absorb, so their reactions may not look like what adults expect. Young children often go in and out of grief, crying one minute and then running outside to play the next, while older children may have lots of questions at times and withdraw at others. 

Grieving children of all ages often feel alone, the only one of their peers to have experienced a loss, and therefore different from all their friends and classmates. Whether they reveal it or not, fear is a significant aspect of grief for children and teens. They often worry about losing someone else. Who will take care of me now? What if someone else dies? Such anxieties may show up in trouble sleeping, separation anxiety, or new sensitivities to places or situations. 

Unfortunately, many young people are alone with their emotions. Adults around them may be too grief-stricken themselves or simply unaware that avoiding painful conversations only compounds the grief. For example, although telling a child the truth about how someone died may be very hard, honest information creates trust between child and adult. Children often perceive more than adults realize, so incomplete or vague explanations leave them more afraid or confused and sometimes feeling needlessly guilty. 

At Home

As a grieving young person grapples internally with big emotions, the parent’s death can necessitate outward changes in daily life, removing familiar stability. Besides their loss of a primary relationship, these changes create a cascade of loss in so many other areas of life that the parent touched. These secondary losses are especially painful for children, who usually have little control over such decisions.   

For example, when a parent who was the primary breadwinner dies, the other parent may have to resume working, which marks a big change. A new caregiver may come into the picture. Perhaps the house is no longer affordable, so a move becomes necessary, which might require a change of schools and loss of friends. Children who lose their only parent face even greater disruption, while even small changes that affect a once reliable routine can cause distress in a grieving child. 

Older children may suddenly be thrust into roles of responsibility for siblings or the household or even as emotional support for the surviving parent in the wake of the death. Constantly being stretched beyond their capacities – “parentified” – creates stress and anxiety. Children learn to ignore their own feelings in deference to others’ needs, and taking on adult concerns so young inhibits their ability to connect with peers so they miss out on normal activities. To have healthy adult relationships, these patterns often must be unlearned.

At School 

With so much churning within themselves and in their home life, it’s unsurprising that bereaved children may have difficulties with concentration, which leads to a decline in academic performance. Previously accomplished students can become discouraged if their grades fall. Students who struggled before the death are at further disadvantage. Either way, it’s school stress compounding grief. 

A study by the University of Pittsburgh found that children who lost a parent were more than twice as likely than nonbereaved kids to show impaired functioning at school and at home, even seven years later. This result held even after researchers adjusted for risk factors such as pre-existing mental health conditions. A 2019 review of population data found that children with parent loss were more likely to be expelled from school or repeat a grade, while they were less likely to be in a gifted program. 

Support Matters

Nothing can erase the pain of children’s grief, but having support makes a difference. It can take varied forms, and all of them are needed. Formal grief programs, where kids can interact with peers who also had a loss can be life changing. They dispel the isolation that young grievers feel. Informally, anyone who is in relationship to a grieving child can support them, by listening when they wish to talk and respecting their wishes when they don’t, also by sharing their own feelings and recollections of the person who died. 

Schools are well-positioned to support grieving young people, because that’s where they spend so much of their time. Caring adults like teachers and coaches can check in with the student and give then space to talk when they want to. They can also provide practical assistance in managing the demands of school while grieving. Administrators can proactively provide grief education to the whole school community and create supportive policies. Fortunately, grief awareness is growing in schools and  resources are available

Beyond Spare: A Role for Prince Harry

In the UK, Prince Harry is known for caring gestures toward grieving children, writing letters to kids who lost a parent in the military and offering comfort to young grievers he meets. In Spare, he shares the impact of losing his mother at 12 years old. In this next chapter of his life, it’s time for Prince Harry to step into the role of public spokesman for children’s grief support. 5.6 million children are counting on him. 


Peg Conway writes and practices Healing Touch energy therapy in Cincinnati, OH, where she also volunteers at a children’s grief center. Her essays about early mother loss and long-term grieving have appeared at The Manifest-Station, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and The Mighty. After earning a master’s in journalism, she worked in corporate communications. Later, she became a certified childbirth educator and doula. Peg and her husband have three grown children and one grandchild. The Art of Reassembly: A Memoir of Early Mother Loss and Aftergrief is her first book.



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