Children and Grief
Do children mourn? Do they even understand what it is like to die? Many people become helpless
on how to react when loss and grief have children involved. More often than not the assumption is
that they don’t understand, they will cope, it does not affect them as much, etc. Now, how
children understand and react to grief depends on their age and stage of development. Grief is a
heavy burden for a child to carry continually and there’s a need to put it down sometimes. Grief
changes as children get older. As they grow and mature, their understanding of death increases,
and they may need to revisit their grief again over the years. Here is how different age groups
process death and grief.
Children’s Grief and Understanding by Age
Although infants do not understand death, they know when things have changed, and react to
a person’s absence. After death, a baby or toddler may be fussier (outbursts or cries too much,
withdrawn, show some clinginess and discomfort. Support, comfort, and maintain the child’s routine. That helps
Children at this age are egocentric naturally. They don’t have the ability to understand death.
They think death is not permanent and is reversible, ‘I know Daddy died. Will he be at my birthday
party next weekend?’ Or ‘Grandpa has been sleeping in that box for too long, don’t you think its time to
wake him up already? May ask a lot of questions over and over again. Be patient and give factual
information without too many details, it only makes them more confused. These children at this age may
regress, change their eating and sleeping patterns, wet their bed, be irritable and be a little confused.
Support them through their grief
These children are gaining language, wishing, and fantasy thinking. They have more
understanding however many still see death as being reversible. Guilt is common among these
age groups. They feel responsible because of wishes and thoughts. ‘It’s my fault she died.’ These
children may act as if nothing happened however there may be general distress and confusion.
Support by providing terms to some of their feelings such as numb, sad, and guilt. Death Play is
often common. Join in and help integrate the reality of death by offering guidance.
This age group has developed self-confidence and is more expressive. Their logical thinking
begins. Death is seen as a punishment. They begin to see death as final. They may ask specific
questions and want details. They may also want to know the ‘right’ way to respond. Will want to
‘hang back’ when hugged as a way of comfort. They express grief through play. They are
generally seen to act out, their sleep is disturbed and their appetite is diminished. Sometimes they may
have a desire to ‘join’ the one who died. Adults can encourage the expression of feelings, answer
questions, explain options and allow for choices.
(Adolescents) 13 Years and beyond:
This age group has more understanding and death is irreversible, universal, and has a cause.
Grief can be expressed through crying, physical aches/ pains, change of behavior, and declining
school performance. Support and reassure these children; Answer their many questions with
proper details. Refer to a psychologist if you feel helpless on how to support
MSc Clinical Psychology