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The Dougy Center - The National Center for Grieving Children and Families
Young Children and Grief

Introduction

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 grief. 

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 to General

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 will die."

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 Their Grief

Children may ask questions repetitively. The answers often do not resolve their searching. The searching itself is part of their grief work. 

Their 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 of grief.

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."

Abstract Thinking

As 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 the death.

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.

The grieving 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 a Family

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.

Fear

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 I die?

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 different children.

Some children act younger or regress. They want the reassurance, the care and attention that they received when they were younger.

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 in fear.

Guilt

There are many kinds of guilt about a death, including:

  • Guilt from intentional action that may have caused a death.
  • 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 try harder.

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 Daddy."

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.

Anger

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 of life.

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.

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. 

Acceptance

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.

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The National Center for Grieving Children and Families, used by permission.
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