Grieving a death vs. grieving a divorce: a child’s perspective



Losing a parent to death or to divorce is catastrophic for any child. However, there are different issues in the grief process between the death of a parent and the end of the parent’s marriage.

When a child loses a parent due to death, even young children can understand the concept that the body quit working. All children come across toys or things that break and quit working. Most have experienced the death of a pet, a goldfish or an insect they have found.

While I’m not comparing the death of a goldfish to the loss and the grief involved in the death of a parent, what I want to convey is the idea children can grasp this concept. The goldfish’s body quit working. The toy quit working. The body of their parent quit working. That is how they begin to understand the death of a parent.

In the death of a parent

Family members, the church, neighbors and possibly even the co-workers of the parent surround most families.

  • Meals are brought in.
  • Gifts for the kids might be left.
  • The remaining parent grieves and may weep and hug their child a lot.
  • People talk about their loved one and share fond memories
  • People pull out pictures and the child sees and remembers family life and the love that existed.
  • Grandparents and other relatives might tell the child funny stories about the child’s birth and how their parent acted and loved them from the beginning.
  • There is a lot of support and acknowledgment of the death.

Ever so slowly, the family develops a new normal and life moves forward.

There is no fighting over the kids, which parent the child will live with or if the children will spend equal time with each parent in two separate homes. There is no confusion about the parent that died loving the child. The parent is gone but the child still knows the parent is still part of the family unit, even if he or she is in heaven. The child doesn’t question the unity that brought him or her into existence.

In the death of a marriage 

The primary difference in the loss of a parent because of divorce (or separation of a cohabiting situation) is that there is no public acknowledgement of the death of the marriage. Most couples don’t even go to court any longer as they rely on mediation, so the only public “event” is the issuance of the necessary paperwork. When cohabiting parents separate, this process is bypassed completely.

Most young children understand that they exist because their parents loved each other. Because they loved each other a child was born out of this love. The child is part mom and part dad.

Andrew Root in “The Children of Divorce” talks about how the ontological security of being is threatened in the child of divorce. The divorce strikes at a child’s identity and even existence. After all if I exist because of my parent’s love, now that they no longer love each other, do I even exist? Or am I supposed to exist? What happens to me?

Along with these deep questions of being, most children of divorce will blame themselves for the divorce being their fault. Children are left wondering:

  • Will my parent that moved out still love me?
  • Will they still make time to see me?
  • Will they still be my parent?
  • Will other kids take my place if my mom or dad finds somebody else to love?

One idea of what to do to help

Because little kids often don’t understand where the parent went, it is up to the adults around them to help them understand. This is a different situation but one that I used when my daughter was deployed overseas. I was the primary caregiver of the then three-year-old child. Because he couldn’t comprehend where his mom went, I had to come up with something that was physical and something he could touch.

This same concept can be used for a younger child of divorce to show him/her where their parent has moved. This may especially help the children when the parent has moved out of the area.

  • I purchased a large world map.
  • I took pictures of my grandson and put it on the place in Florida where we lived.
  • I took a picture of a small plane and placed it over the ocean.
  • Next I took a picture of mommy and placed it in on the map over Afghanistan.
  • I drew short lines to form a path between Florida and Afghanistan.

I placed this large map by the back door where he always left and entered upon returning home. I explained that mommy got on an airplane and flew across the ocean. He knew what an ocean was because we live close to the beach.

At first he would stop and just stare at that map every morning. Then he would take his finger and trace the flight path to Afghanistan. He could see how his mom and him were still connected and where she was. This was something physical that kept mommy in his memory and kept her present with him.

Other suggestions to help the child of divorce

  • Encourage the single parent to allow pictures of the other parent to be posted over the child’s bed.
  • Display pictures of previous family outings and activities in the child’s room.
  • Encourage the single parent to let her/his child contact the other parent often via Skype, Facetime, texts or phone.
  • Ask the other parent to record themselves reading a storybook to the children so the child can listen to it when going to bed.
  • Encourage the single parent to have the child draw pictures, take a picture of the drawing and text it to the other parent.
  • Set up a secret Facebook page where the child can connect on a regular basis with the other parent. In a secret group, only people you invite can see what is posted on that page. Grandparents and other extended family can be included on the secret page. Elementary age children, tween and teens can do their own posting on this page.

I’m sure if you set your creative minds to it you will think of many other ideas to help the child of divorce survive and process the divorce of their parents.


This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on the Kids & Divorce blog on May 20, 2015.

DC4K blog posts are great for training children’s leaders and volunteers, and they are free. Subscribe now.

Want to learn more about how to start a DivorceCare for Kids group for the hurting children in your community?

Did you know DC4K blog articles are on Pinterest? Divorce & Kids, Children’s Pastors, Single Parents, they’re all there.

Follow dc4kLinda on Twitter.

Like our DivorceCare for Kids and Single & Parenting Facebook pages where we give awesome parenting tips for the single parents in your ministries.


10 thoughts on “Grieving a death vs. grieving a divorce: a child’s perspective

  1. How does a child feel when the other parent walks away and doesn’t want any contact? When the parent taking care of that child tells the other parent they are still a dad and they need to call text or email their children but he doesn’t? When they see their dad taking his girlfriends two daughters all over and passes them on the road but doesn’t acknowledge his own children? How do these children feel when their dad’s girlfriend files false police reports on them and he is still with her? How do these kids feel? What am I supposed to do to make it all better? At least in death there are good memories but when this is thrown in your face weekly, how are you supposed to cope?

    • Excellent questions and good questions for any stressed parent in your situation to explore. I strongly encourage you to get your kids into a DC4K group. You might have to wait until fall as many groups don’t run during the summer. Get yourself into a DivorceCare group. ( or The questions you bring up is exactly why I continue to try and educate church leaders and single parents. Our kids need cheer leaders and people that can help soothe the deep hurts a disinterested parent brings. I’m sorry your kids are experiencing such trauma. Keep reading this blog and explore some of the past posts to help you help your kids. And please find a church that can love on you and your kids and help them process all of this trauma because it is deep trauma.

      • Dear Linda,

        I appreciate all of the time you are devoting to single parenting. I wish there were more people like you in the world. I respectfully disagree with the lack of opportunities and support available for women and men that are single parents. I live in a LARGE metro area with a high divorce rate. Trying to find a DC Group WITH childcare or a S & P Group WITH childcare is a joke! A DC4K is not even an option. I did manage to find one group of S&P and the program was worthless, it was not nearly as good as DC, and the night and time it was offered did not work well and the class disbanded before it even finished.

        Divorce is public knowledge! The child’s teacher knows, the school, the people in the church, neighbors, and everyone else who loves to gossip and feel better about themselves because they are not one of “those people”.

        I have had zero luck with finding a church that is supportive. Churches follow the money, and their is no money in the single parent ministry. They cater to the young and the old, and there is nothing left in between. That is true whether you are divorced, married with no children, single, or a single parent. The baby boomers control the churches and they are only concerned with their agenda.

        I have been fully involved in 2 churches on a long term basis, but if you are not supported by the church, all of your time and effort will not matter. Eventually you mind and heart listen to reason and realize they don’t want “your kind” here. Actions speak louder than words. It is a shame and disgusting. Jesus wouldn’t even be welcome in most churches today.

        • My heart hurts for you and the millions of other single parents that are struggling to find a church. And that is why I am relentless in educating church leaders and the public in general. I feel your pain because I have walked the road you are on. Now that I’m older, have more time on my hands and the Lord has given me the talent to write and speak I’m doing everything and going wherever I can to get the word out. Churches should be the first place hurting people go but the truth is ministers just don’t know what they don’t know. In other words they are loving and caring people but many have never faced the heart ache of divorce and I pray they never do. We do have more and more children’s ministers who come from divorced homes. They understand and slowly they are educating other church leaders. Please don’t give up. When you get old and gray headed like me, people will think you are an expert (ha, ha) and they might listen to you. In the meantime I pray the Lord raise up many more single parent educators. Until I can’t write, speak or walk I’ll be out there.

  2. This is very upsetting coming from a young widow’s point of view. I understand that there are differences in the ways loss occurs, but it feels as though the article greatly down plays the pain and struggles associated with a death. There are so many aspects of loss, either by death, divorce, or otherwise, that it is wrong to compare them at all. While I recognize the aim is to help children of divorced parents, I think it could be done in a way that doesn’t downplay the loss of a parent by death in comparison.

    • Crystal, I’m sorry this article was offensive. It wasn’t meant to down play the the pain and struggle a family has in the death of a parent. I have ministered to many families who have lost a loved one to death. I myself lost a husband to cancer. Grieving is hard. For your benefit and others I will be posting an article very soon about helping children grieve the loss of someone to death. Thank you for sharing your grief with us.

  3. Linda Jacobs, today I just join as a leader for a Single and Parenting initiative in Las Vegas. I am read a few articles to familiarize myself with the online community. I stumbled across this article and the comments and want you to know I hope to display the compassion, understanding, love and wisdom I’ve absorbed reading through this post. You have my respect and appreciation for the work that you do and more importantly the person you are. I hope to exemplify your passion, grace, gentleness and kindness as I cultivate the healing anfd restoration this ministry provides to single parents in my local church. NUM 6:25 May God continue to make his face shine upon you Linda.

    • Thank you so much Derick. I pray you will bring much healing through Single & Parenting to the single parents in Las Vegas. Personally I think every church should host S&P along with DC4K and DivorceCare. Just think how our world would change if churches could help people heal from the heartaches we have in our world today. I hope you have joined the Single & Parenting online Forum where other leaders share their successes, ideas and questions. Blessings to you Derik.

  4. Pingback: DC4K » Helping a child grieve the death of a parent

  5. Pingback: Helping A Child Grieve The Death Of A Parent | KidzMatter

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.