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Helping Your Child Grieve (Part 2)

As parents we want the best for your children and we want to protect them from any harm. However, when grief descends upon the family our children will experience the pain that comes with loosing someone they love. No matter what we do, our children will hurt. Parents are then left with the responsibility of modeling honest grief and understanding their children’s grief as best they can. For parents this latter part has to do with understanding how children grieve during different stages of development.

Before getting into the age levels, there are some generalities that are helpful to be aware of when thinking about grieving children and what is helpful for them. First, children need to feel that their environment (home, school, etc.) is a safe and secure place before they share their thoughts and feelings about grief. Children, even at young ages, are very astute to changes in their environment and how people around them feel and act. They need to frequently hear and feel assurance that parents are okay, and that they will have someone to take care of them. This is why parents need to attend to their own grief adequately. Second, younger children are repetitive in asking questions and wanting reassurance. Especially early on, they may ask the same question over and over. This is similar to adults in the early stages of grief and shock having a difficult time coming to terms with the fact that a loved one has died. Adults may think, “this is all a bad dream,” but then have the cognitive ability to know that it is real. Children ask the same or similar questions to help them know what is real: “Where is daddy?” “Is mommy coming back today?” “Why doesn’t grandpa come back from heaven to see me?”

Children also need to understand what’s real and true at their level of cognitive understanding. Younger children need to hear that death is final, that a person cannot come back when they are dead, even if they want to. They need to be told that a person’s body does not think, get cold or hungry and that the body has stopped working and cannot be made better. As children get older they may need to ask questions related to more details about how the person died.

In addition, you may see your children regress in their in their behavior. A young child who has been potty trained may again start wetting the bed; a child who has been sleeping on his or her own may want to sleep with a parent or older sibling. Death often brings feelings of insecurity, and even older children may need to feel a parent’s closeness and touch.

Children also tend to grieve bits at a time. They may ask questions and cry one minute and then seem to be fine and off playing a short time later. This may be to help them cope since they do not have the emotional resources of older children and adults, or it may be that their play could be helping to process their grief.

Finally, all children are different in their cognitive, emotional and social development. You may see variations in responses presented below. Whatever age, watch for noticeable changes in behaviors and physical health, as illness is more common during grief when the immune system is lower due to stress.

CHILD DEVELOPMENT AND GRIEF

Very Young Children (infant to age 2): Very young children are most aware of their daily routine and their regular caretaker. If the caretaker is no longer there or if their routine changes they may cry more. They may demonstrate discomfort, frustration and yearning for the familiar face, touch and familiarity of the parent. Sleeping and eating habits may change. As much as possible, try to establish a familiar and consistent routine again.

Preschool-Age Children (ages 2 to 4): Children are beginning to develop the concept of “object constancy.” They know that when mommy, daddy, brother or sister, etc. leave, they still exist and will come back. When a close family member dies they don’t yet grasp the concept that the person will not come back. They may ask the repeated questions, look for the loved one, talk about missing someone at special, routine times, and be withdrawn, clingy or very insistent in their wants and needs. Children need brief, concrete answers, routine and reassurance that they are loved and cared for.

Early Childhood (ages 5 to 8): Children are beginning to understand the concept of death. They understand the word but may need to ask specific questions to help fill in the details of what happens in death. “Will daddy get hungry and have to go to the bathroom?” “Is mommy cold?” “Will grandpa be sad that he is by himself?” They are also growing in their understanding and experience of emotions, but may need help in naming them and expressing them verbally. Fear and anger are still the strongest and most accessible emotions to children at this age, so they may show insecurity and aggression more durring periods of grief. Thinking abilities are also expanding during this age, but more along the lines of “cause and effect.” Children may “think” that because they didn’t pick up their toys, got mad at mommy or yelled at daddy, they somehow “caused” the person to die. He or she needs to be reassured that their actions did not cause death.

Middle Childhood (ages 9 to 12): Children are becoming more knowledgeable and sophisticated in their emotions, sense of the future and understanding of death. Especially if this loss is their first experience with death, they may be more curious about the details of what happens at the funeral and burial. Children may also begin to think ahead and understand that daddy will not be there for Christmas or their next birthday. Reactions could be sadness or anger. At this age children are growing socially and have more friends than before. They don’t want to be “different” from other kids and may be embarrassed to talk about their loss. If they are struggling with emotions, they may isolate themselves from friends. Children at this age need more concrete ideas for dealing with grief: writing about how they feel in a journal, drawing pictures of the family or the person who died, having a special picture to look at when they are sad, keeping something as a memento.

Adolescence (ages 12 to 18): Around this age, young people are beginning to develop a more adult understanding of death and their peer group is even more important to them as they begin to establish their identity and sense of independence. Anger is still the easiest emotion to express, especially if they feel life is unfair. Sadness can also lead to depression, isolation or risk-taking behaviors (drinking, experimenting with drugs, driving fast, etc.). Teenagers need to know the facts and feel safe in expressing their concerns and emotions. Like adults, they also may also require some personal space and to spend time alone in order to properly process their grief. Lastly, teenagers need to be included in decisions and the planning of rituals. This will help them honor their loved one in a positive and structured way and provide them with an outlet for coping.

Bereavement is a difficult journey for anyone! Children typically have fewer emotional and physical resources to help them along this journey. Like everyone, they often need to revisit their grief as they get older and have go through other significant life events. The information in this blog is very generalized, written to provide basic guidelines and understanding. Please use the contact link on my website to ask more specific questions or schedule an appointment. Your family’s grief journey will likely be long and often unpredictable. As a therapist, I can serve as a your guide and help you navigate through this troubling time.

About the Author

Ray has been a Licensed Professional Counselor in the state of Texas since 1993. He is also a Clinical Fellow with the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and a current member of the Association for Death Education and Counseling. Ray has been working with grieving families for more than 20 years as a counselor, educator and the leader of a crisis response team.
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