Children and Grief
Most children have an encounter with death, whether it’s the death of a pet, grandparent, friend, or parent. Children of different ages understand death to varying degrees and express their sadness in different ways.
Babies and toddlers under age two cannot comprehend death but are upset by the change in routine and the emotions of the people around them. They may cry more often, have difficulty sleeping, throw fits, rock back and forth, or have tummy trouble due to anxiety. The best way to offer comfort is to maintain their routine, offer lots of physical contact like cuddling, and be patient and gentle with the behavior changes.
Preschool age children can understand when something is dead, however they think it is a temporary state like sleeping and can be reversed; much like the characters in the cartoons they watch. They may ask questions repeatedly such as, “When is Grandma coming back?” or “What is Grandma doing right now?” Answer these questions as simply and honestly as possible. Acting out the events surrounding the death, such as playing hospital, or crashing toy cars can also be a behavior associated with grief. Crying, withdrawing, nightmares, fighting and regression, such as baby talk, thumb sucking, or bed wetting are also common. Allow these behaviors and encourage play and fun.
Kids six- to 12-years old have a more adult concept of death. They understand the body has ceased to function and the person will not be coming back. They are also capable of thinking of the future, realizing their loved one won’t be attending their future birthdays, graduation, or wedding. They worry their angry thoughts or bad behaviors could have caused the death and are aware it could happen again. Often they worry what will happen if their caregiver were to die. Common reactions to grief include regression, denial, poor or markedly improved performance in school, aggression, being protective of loved ones, and nightmares.
Teenagers have the same reactions as the previous age group but also ponder their own mortality, hide their feelings to appear strong and can utilize spirituality to cope. They may fight, scream, argue, engage in high risk behavior, change their eating habits, and change their group of friends.
With teenagers and children of any age, include them in the rituals of grieving but do not force them to participate. Having a separate mourning ritual such as releasing balloons, lighting candles, or creating a memory book can often offer closure and comfort to the child without being overwhelming.
Above all remember to be available when they want to talk or just spend time together so they are reminded they are not alone and are loved.