Grief in Children

By Margie Wagner & Callie Little, Child Development Media,, reprinted with permission

It goes without saying that the grieving process is a complicated and intensely personal one. It is difficult enough for adults to deal with the loss of a loved one, but it can be even more difficult for children, particularly if their adult caregivers are working through their own grief. Understanding how grief affects children at various developmental stages and knowing the best ways to assist children as they grieve can help children to process their grief in the most healthy way possible. Keep in mind that, while grief is usually associated with a death, there are many circumstances under which children grieve. Separation due to the dissolution of a relationship or due to a military deployment or job-related separation can also cause grief in children.

Reactions to Loss and How to Help

How old a child is at the time of loss certainly affects the child’s perception of the event.  Although babies are unable to express themselves verbally, they will certainly exhibit reactions to loss. They may seem more fussy, inconsolable, or have changes in their eating and sleeping patterns. Very young children, ages 2 to 4, are egocentric: they think the world revolves around them, and their concept of death is limited. They may think that death is reversible, and their main reactions to death may be that their daily routine and care are altered. The adult whom they have lost, or who is also grieving, will be either absent or unable to care for the child in the accustomed manner. At this age, reactions are often regressive, exhibiting themselves in eating, sleeping, or toileting disruptions. Children this age need reassurance and consistency. Try to maintain regular routines and to be comforting, giving hugs and kisses and lots of gentle touches. Keep the discussions of death short, but keep interactions with the child frequent. Even if you feel like the baby or young child cannot understand your words, they will understand your interest in their feelings and your wish to console them. Keep talking – it will help you to get used to the discussions that will become longer and more detailed as the child gets older, and it will help you to figure out what to say.

Children aged 5 to 7 have a little more understanding of the permanency of death, but it is not a deep understanding. These children are more autonomous than younger ones, but they still have trouble separating fantasy from reality. They may think they are somehow responsible for the death, although they still see death as reversible. They may ask many “why” and “how” questions, and may want to play funeral or try to take on the role of the dead person. Repetitive questions and possible nightmares, eating and sleeping disruptions, and violent play are all potential reactions at this age. Caregivers can help by allowing children to tell stories or create drawings or express themselves through play. Be there to talk about the process and encourage the child to share his or her emotions. As with younger children, don’t worry if your child cannot fully grasp the complexities of the topic. Simply keeping an open dialogue is beneficial to you both.

At age 7 through 11, children are starting to think more logically, and they are better able to see death as permanent (but don’t be surprised if they still view it as reversible). They may fear bodily harm and may be concerned with how others are responding to the death and whether their response is the “right” one. Children this age may think of suicide as a way to join the person who died, and they may withdraw from social groups and exhibit anger toward parents. They will ask questions and want specific answers. The best thing to do is to be willing and available to talk about the grief. Answer questions. Be there when they want to talk, but honor the time in which they need to be alone to process their emotions. Encourage these children to express themselves through symbolic play.

Ages 11 through 18 bring about a period when a child can think abstractly and process the meaning of death. Their reactions to death may be more adult-like; they may want to talk more to people outside of, not within, their family, and may become depressed or angry and otherwise “act out.” Do not try to take away the grief from these children or to shield them from grief.  Instead, encourage them to verbalize their emotions and be available to talk or listen as they work through this complex process. Don’t attempt to take control of the situation, but simply be there for them.

Commonalities of Grief

While these developmental stages usually correspond with a child’s chronological age, don’t expect there to be a bright line of delineation between these states just because a child is a certain age. All children may exhibit shock, denial, and anger before finally accepting the loss. There will be a period of upheaval, followed by a transitional period where children try to make sense of their loss, and then finally a reorganization as they adjust to their new situation. Grief, though, is cyclical: like adults, children may think they have accepted a loss only to have a setback that leaves them feeling hopeless or helpless again. There isn’t a prescribed time period in which the grieving process takes place. The most important things to remember are to be available for the child and to let him express grief without trying to impose the “right” way to grieve.  Children may exhibit typical grief-related behaviors for their age or developmental stage, but they are all individuals who will process their grief differently.

If the Child Needs Additional Help

Parents and caregivers want to do everything possible to assist a grieving child, but if they are grieving themselves, or it the child is having a particularly difficult time of processing the loss, outside help may be necessary. Your child’s pediatrician, his or her school counselor, or the person who leads your place of worship may have some recommendations for counseling. Individual and group counseling can be helpful.  For older children, connecting with peers who have suffered a loss can be useful. While the grieving process is a personal one, just knowing one is not the only one who has suffered a loss can be valuable.

Your local library may have some reference material that can be helpful in assisting children with loss, and a search of Internet sources can turn up credible and useful source material as well.

Day camps, residential camps, and even residential schools can offer services beyond the scope and expertise of parents and caregivers and can be invaluable resources as children work through the grieving process and begin to establish a peace with their loss.

The most important thing to remember is that children are individuals, and they will process their grief differently. Be there to listen, to guide, to help children express themselves, and be attuned to the child’s needs. Listen respectfully and let the child express himself in his own words, no matter his age. Stay tuned into the child’s progress as he navigates these new emotions, particularly if you feel he needs some more expert assistance in working through the complexities of the grieving process.

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