When Children Grieve
Let’s begin with the question that people often ask: “Do children really grieve? Can they grieve?” The answer is an emphatic yes! Infants as young as three months of age may show signs of turmoil at the loss of their mother. The rule of thumb is that any child old enough to develop a bond with another human being is old enough to grieve.
The truth is that, for various reasons, children may be at a disadvantage as grievers. They probably have had few or no experiences with grief, so they likely won’t understand exactly what’s going on with them. They have nothing with which to compare this. They have less verbal ability to explain what they’re feeling and what is happening to them, whether this means explaining it to themselves or to others. There’s another complicating factor: it’s likely their parental figures are grieving as well, which means these people may be less available and less helpful than they might otherwise.
It’s quite possible that this death creates a sense of upheaval all around the home. There may be strong and unexpected displays of emotion. Daily routines may be upended. People may be coming and going, even at odd hours. Some people may suddenly appear who don’t normally appear in the home. Children like the feeling of security and such an environment is anything but secure. Then there’s the absence of the person who died, creating a vacuum, which neither feels good nor does it make sense. And it’s likely that the child may have little, perhaps no, concept of what death is and what being dead means.
Another possible complication is what children are told during this time. Thinking they should protect these little ones, the adults around them may say things about this loss that are inaccurate or untrue. These adults may pretend that nothing has happened at all and attempt to hide children from the reality of what’s going on, thinking they cannot or should not deal with such sadness and grief.
The truth is, however, that children are usually amazingly resilient and hardy. They tend to be more flexible, in fact, than adults do. There is also a sense in which, if children are kept in the dark about death and loss, this can be experienced as a kind of humiliation. In such a case, they may feel that they’re being treated as being “less than” a more grown person, that they “don’t have what it takes” to respond to this aspect of life.
To spare children unduly in such situations can be a handicap for children, for it can lead them to be solitary mourners. After all, they’re already learning about death in many ways—on TV, through the news, in the games they play, through their friends, and in nature around them. They are more savvy than many adults may think.
Another thing about children—they can already use their eyes and ears quite well. They can read people’s nonverbal behaviors, even if they cannot understand what’s going on. Often they can sense when someone is withholding truth from them, or when one doesn’t believe for oneself whatever is being said. Moreover, children have a great need to know. They’re growing and expanding all the time. They’re constantly filling in the gaps in their knowledge. And if they do not have the assistance of caring and honest adults to help them, they will fill the gaps for themselves, doing the best they can, and what they fill in may well be incorrect. Indeed, what they fill in may well be more difficult to deal with than the truth itself.
To trust children with the truth that is appropriate for their age is to love them. And conversely, to love children means to trust them and to believe in them. Children need and deserve to be supported in their age-appropriate awareness of death and in their natural tendency to grieve. It’s how they learn. It’s how they develop coping skills. It’s how they mature, becoming increasingly healthy human beings who will hurt and grieve many more times in their lives.
Children respond to grief in their own unique ways.
Children are likely to respond physiologically as they grieve, perhaps more than adults. Their heartache can become a stomachache. They may show other signs of being physically ill. They may experience sleep disturbances and have odd dreams. They may evidence an unusual lack of energy.
Sometimes children are known to display a lack of feeling in the face of a loved one’s death. This may be a way of avoiding the intensity of their emotions, including any fear and fright that may be theirs. Like adults, they may respond with shock and disbelief, especially early in the process. They may describe this experience, in their own way, as being unreal or not true or just plain strange.
Children, especially younger ones, may show signs of regression—of acting and talking like they did when they were younger. Their attempt here, which makes perfect sense to them on some level, is to go back to a period in their life when things seemed happier and more secure, more normal.
Some children have temporary panic reactions. They may fear being alone, or being in the dark, or being away from their parents. School phobia may appear. Hyperactivity is another possible response.
Then there’s the “big man” or “gown-up woman” syndrome that can appear in children. They act as if they’ve grown up very quickly, much beyond their years. Bypassing more customary child-like behavior, they may act unusually mature, perhaps by trying to protect or to care for others who are grieving around them. They may be trying to protect themselves unconsciously from their own sense of helplessness.
Acting-out behaviors are not unusual. In response to feeling abandoned or deprived or left out, children may turn to anger and defiance as a coping tool. They may fight with others, confront authority, run away, or reject just about anyone and anything. They may present discipline problems in school or earn uncharacteristically low grades. Seen in another way, they may be sealing themselves off from others, so they won’t be in danger of being abandoned again.
Guilt is another possible response—guilt about what they said or did, or didn’t say or didn’t do, before this death occurred. They may look back upon their age-appropriate self-centeredness with chagrin. Feelings of emptiness and sadness are also common.
Children’s awareness of the finality of death varies with age.
While children are as unique as adults in how they experience and express their sense of loss, there are a few distinctions by age that generally, and only very generally, hold true.
Infancy to 1 year.
Very early in a child’s life, one’s mother is seen as an extension of one’s own self. There is not a clear demarcation between the two. Consequently, there can be significant distress if the mother should die. A child of this age cannot understand death, but they can understand, and respond negatively, to separation and loss. The death or loss of an important person in a child’s life at this age can impair or delay their ability to have a basic trust in life.
Early childhood: 2 to 6 years.
By this age children are much more aware of what separation and loss are. They can indeed grieve though they may not be able to understand what grief is; they may simply understand that it’s a heavy sadness. They’re likely to see death itself as strange and confusing, and as temporary and reversible. Similarly, they may see death as accidental and therefore as avoidable—all they have to do is step out of its way when they see it coming.
Children this age may connect events that do not belong together. Based upon their limited experience, going to the hospital may equate with preparing to die. Going to sleep may be in that same equation. They cannot yet understand abstract language.
They’re very curious and exploring at this age and are often ready to ask unusual questions. They may repeat their questions until they get a suitable answer they feel they can understand.
Often the overall concept of death for these children is that the deceased “lives on but under very changed circumstances.” It’s difficult for them to comprehend that their loved one does not live on in some physical place.
Middle Childhood: 6 to 11 years.
By this age children begin to understand the finality of death. They may see death in rather grim ways—as a “taker,” a “killer,” a “bogeyman.” Death may be seen as frightening and carry a connotation of violence. It is an external agent that exerts its control over others. It may also be seen as a punishment.
In middle childhood death is understood as something that happens to others but probably not to oneself. It is not a universal phenomenon—it gets some people, but not others. By now there is a growing interest in biological details, even distasteful ones. This may include a desire to know the complete details of how the person died. There is a growing concern for the practical results of the death. What will happen to my family? Our lifestyle? Our daily routines? They may act silly and laugh at the thought of death. They may be insensitive to their peers, including those who are grieving.
In general it’s wise to discuss dying and death with children before there is a painful need to do so. By using teachable moments (when coming upon a dead bird, for example), children can begin to understand the nature of death and the sadness of grief as they weave these experiences into their everyday lives.
This writing, by James E. Miller, is included in the fourth issue of Willowgreen’s newsletter for grieving individuals, Grief’s Healing Journey. Organizations may send the print version of this seven-issue newsletter over the course thirteen months to individuals and families in their care. They may choose alternatively to send subscriptions to the electronic version for the same time period. For additional information click here.