Dougy Center -
The National Center for Grieving Children
Young Children and Grief
It is believed that infants grieve. If there are
people who have been consistently present in a baby's
life, the child will have a sense of something missing.
A young child often does not initially respond to
hearing that someone has died. Many parents are concerned
that their child has no initial reaction or visible
It is important to remember that a young child's perception
is oriented in the five basic senses. It is concrete,
short-range and based on what is felt in the moment.
A young child does not comprehend the concept of
death. A person is gone; then a person is there. When
a person is gone and then still gone and then still
gone, a child may grieve at each moment when he or
she feels the person's goneness.
A child may not grieve at all for these leavings
until the accumulative affect of goneness inspires
a longing or aching protest within the child.
The child will miss the specific elements of the
person: sound of voice, expression, smell, activities
experienced together. A child's missing of the person
who has died will not necessarily be as a result of
hearing that that person is dead.
Very young children may grieve a specific person.
The primary care giver is most missed by young children:
smell, voice, rhythm, etc.
Young children also mourn the loss of secondary people
in their lives such as other family members and persons
with whom the child spends large amounts of time.
Children Are Concrete in Their Thinking
In order to lessen confusion use the words death and
dying. Describe death concretely. Answer their questions
simply and honestly, not using euphemisms such as passed
on, went to sleep, etc.
You don't have to add
a large number of details. Children will ask if they
want to know more. You can see if they are listening because they want
to or for your benefit (agitated, fidgety, little or no eye contact).
Children Generalize from Specific
If someone died in a hospital, children
think that hospitals are for dying. If someone died
in their sleep, children are afraid to go to sleep.
If one person died they may think, "someone
(or everyone) else will die" or "I
They will learn
to accommodate new truths on their own if they are
allowed to express themselves and try things out (such
as going to sleep and waking up alive).
Children Are Repetitive in
Children may ask questions repetitively.
The answers often do not resolve their searching. The
searching itself is part of their grief work.
questions are indicative of their feelings of confusion
and uncertainty. Listen and support their searching.
Answer repetitively. You may have to tell the story
over and over and over again.
Children Are Physical in Their Grief
The older children are, the more capable they
are of expressing themselves in words. Younger children
simply are their feelings. What they do with their bodies
speaks their feelings.
Grief is a physical experience
for all ages, and most especially for younger children.
Movement and active play yield communication. Watch
their bodies and understand their play as their language
Reflect their play
verbally and physically as a way of supporting their
communication. Thus, they will feel that they are being
heard, and they may feel like continuing to communicate
in this way with you. Example: "You
are bouncing, bouncing, bouncing on those pillows; your face is red,
and you are yelling loudly."
children become older, they begin to grasp the concept
of death. Their "death data bank" grows.
They will begin to understand that the person will
never come back because he or she is "dead," and
dead begins to take on meaning.
Abstract thinking develops
more in-depth with the onset of adolescence. Sometimes
a death will lead adolescents into philosophic pondering,
sometimes appearing like depression, as they investigate the meaning
of the event that has occurred. Questions might arise, such as: What
is life? What is death? Who am I?
Children Grieve Cyclically
Their grief work goes in cycles throughout their childhood
and life. Each time they reach a new developmental
level they reintegrate the important events of their
lives, using their newly acquired processes and skills.
Example: A one-year old upon losing her mother will
become absorbed in the death again when her language
skills develop and as she is able to use words
for the expression of her feelings. She may re-experience
the grief again as an adolescent, using her newly acquired cognitive
skills of abstract thinking.
Children Need Choices
Death is a disruption in children's lives that is quite
frightening. Their lives will probably seem un- dependable,
unstable, confusing and out of control. These topsy
turvy feelings can be smoothed if children have some
say in what they do or don't do to memorialize the
person who died and to express their feelings about
Whenever possible, children should be
offered choices about going to the hospital, viewing
the body, attending the funeral, etc.
Children often appreciate being offered pictures and
possessions of the deceased person as a way of supporting
their grieving process. Allow them to have clothing
of the person, to play with the toys or objects and to
have pictures. Let them choose what they want and what
to do with them.
child may assume qualities of the dead person as a
way of keeping a sense of that person alive. Mannerisms
and symptoms of the deceased person may appear.
Children Grieve as Part of
When a family member dies, it will affect the way the
family functions as a whole. All the relationships
within the family may shift, adjusting to this change
in the family structure.
Children may mourn the person
who died and the environment in the family that
existed before the death. Children may grieve the changed
behavior of family and friends.
It is helpful if each family member is encouraged to
grieve in his/her own way, with support for individual
differences. Family members are given permission to
see each other's mourning, if possible. It's important
not to shield children from emotions. Offering them the
option to be alone or with others will facilitate their
feeling of being included and give them permission to
be with their feelings as well.
A Child's Feelings
Children's feelings are their allies. Feelings help
children to pay attention to their loss. Through
this attention comes their own understanding about
the death they are grieving. A young child does not
understand the abstract concept of death. But a child
does have feelings that most often are expressed
through behavior (e.g. play, acting out) or questions
that show a search for meaning.
The most basic feeling of loss for a child is that
of fear, fear and uncertainty about: What happened?
Who will die next? How will we live without the dead
person? Will my parents ever recover from their grief?
Will my other parent die? How often does death occur?
Who will take care of me? Where will I go if I die?
Why did it happen to me? And, most especially, will
Children of all ages must go through their
fearful feelings until they come to their own under-
standing. This may be strenuous on both parents and
children (e.g. nightmares, physical symptoms, regressions).
If children receive sufficient attention and nurturing
during this fearful time, they will recover a sense
of the basic dependability of life.
Listen to a child's fears and validate them as difficult
feelings to feel. Fear can appear differently in
act younger or regress. They want the reassurance,
the care and attention that they received when they were
Some children become
over-achievers in an attempt to contradict their own
feelings of helplessness. They may do everything "right," even
to the extent of parenting their parents.
Some children exhibit exaggerated displays of power
to counteract their fears, and this may take the
form of super-hero manifestations or may look like what
we would characterize as naughty behavior, acting
out, anger and/or belligerence.
Some children may withdraw and become very quiet, frozen
There are many kinds of guilt about a death, including:
- Guilt from intentional action that may have caused
- Regret for actions (or lack of) that might have
prevented the death.
- An unrealistic sense of responsibility that protects
us from the senselessness of the death.
Sometimes unrealistic guilt can ease the fear that
children may feel when someone dies. Taking unrealistic
responsibility for a death gives children a false reassurance
that they can prevent unwanted events if only they
Overprotectiveness of children can also
produce a child's guilt. As a natural protection mechanism,
parents want to protect their children from painful
events. Because of this, they sometimes do not tell
their children what is taking place.
Children perceive the tension, sadness and anger
and become frightened upon feeling something horrible
is taking place but no one is talking to them about
it. All children attempt to make sense out of what
is happening in their surroundings and do so by filling
in the gaps with their own imagined explanations,
often with a sense of personal responsibility for
what has taken place. As they develop, they begin
to comprehend that life's events happen and that
they are not solely responsible.
When a child feels unrealistic guilt for a death,
remind him or her of the facts of the situation. "It's
not your fault. You are a child and could not have
taken over the driving of the car to save Daddy.
Daddy was an adult, a good driver, and he couldn't
do it." "The other
car was coming towards us to fast, and that is why it hit us and killed
When a child continues to feel unrealistic
guilt, acknowledge that it is a difficult feeling to have. The child
may need to continue to feel the guilt until he or she is ready to
feel the more difficult feelings of vulnerability
that the death has brought up.
There are different kinds of anger expressed in grieving.
There may be unresolved issues between a child and
the person who died, which can result in anger in
the child. There may be anger in a child as a protest
against the fact of the death and the lack of dependability
Anger can also be an antidote to fear, manifesting
in an outward display of personal power. A child may
communicate through anger: "I am strong
enough to control life with my force." A child may become rebellious
or resistant to counteract the vulnerability of feeling fear and sorrow.
When a child feels sorrow, he or she may be ready to accept
the truth of the loss without protest. Sorrow can be an
expression of a child's feelings of vulnerability as he
or she continues to live without the person who died. The
child may grieve a loss of security. Loving arms around
a child who cries with sorrow can offer safety and acceptance
in a world that includes the dying of those we love.
It is our
experience that we do not "get over" an
important death in our lives. We learn to live with
it, accept it and go on with our lives to create joy
in living. Gentle acknowledgment of the ones who
have died gives depth throughout our lives to the picture
of our experience of life and death.
The National Center for Grieving
Children and Families, used by permission.