Childrens Reactions to Grief
As a parent you may feel quite bewildered by changes in your child’s behaviour or their reactions to the death of your loved one. It is important to know that children often “act out” their feelings as they don’t always have the words to express them.
Some children will become withdrawn while others may become angry or sad. We hope that the following information will help to reassure you that most of this behaviour is normal in a grieving child. Children at different stages of development have different understandings of death and the events near death.
Infants do not recognise death, but feelings of loss and separation are part of developing an awareness of death. Children who have been separated from their mother may be sluggish, quiet, unresponsive to a smile or a coo, undergo physical changes (for example, weight loss), be less active, and sleep less.
Age 2 to 3 years
Children at this age often confuse death with sleep and may experience anxiety as early as age 3. They may stop talking and appear to feel overall distress.
Age 3 to 6 years
At this age children see death as a kind of sleep; the person is alive, but only in a limited way. The child cannot fully separate death from life. Children may think that the person is still living, even though he or she might have been buried, and ask questions about the deceased (for example, how does the deceased eat, go to the toilet, breathe, or play?). Young children know that death occurs physically, but think it is temporary, reversible, and not final. The child’s concept of death may involve magical thinking. For example, the child may think that his or her thoughts can cause another person to become sick or die. Grieving children under 5 may have trouble eating, sleeping, and controlling bladder and bowel functions.
Age 6 to 9 years
Children at this age are commonly very curious about death, and may ask questions about what happens to one’s body when it dies. Death is thought of as a person or spirit separate from the person who was alive, such as a skeleton, ghost, angel of death, or “bogey man.” They may see death as final and frightening but as something that happens mostly to old people (and not to themselves).
Grieving children can become afraid of school, have learning problems, develop antisocial or aggressive behaviours, become overly concerned about their own health (for example, developing symptoms of imaginary illness), or withdraw from others. Or, children this age can become too attached and clinging.
Boys usually become more aggressive and destructive (for example, acting out in school), instead of openly showing their sadness. Children may feel abandoned by both their deceased parent and their surviving parent because the surviving parent is grieving and is unable to emotionally support the child.
Ages 9 and older
By the time a child is 9 years old, death is known to be unavoidable and is not seen as a punishment. By the time a child is 12 years old, death is seen as final and something that happens to everyone.
In society, many grieving adults withdraw and do not talk to others. Children, however, often talk to the people around them (even strangers) to see the reactions of others and to get clues for their own responses. Children may ask confusing questions. For example, a child may ask “I know grandpa died, but when will he come home?” This is a way of testing reality and making sure the story of the death has not changed.
Adolescents are often full of thoughts about life and death issues, or the ‘meaning of life’. On the other hand, they can be so busy living life to the full that they rarely stop to reflect on their feelings, burying them until they surface much later at a vulnerable time in their lives.
A significant death can make a teenager feel particularly thrown because it may go against their strong belief in their won future and that of others. They can start to feel insecure just when they are starting to separate more from the family.
You may notice that they do any of the following:
- Withdraw into a very private existence
- Go back to behaving like a much younger child
- Appear to be very matter-of-fact and detached, worried about emotions overwhelming them
- Become angry and protesting
As these tendencies are often part of normal adolescent development, it may be difficult for you to know when to persist in your offers of help.
If the young person is managing school and social life, as well as eating and sleeping normally, you can probably wait for the normal grieving process to run its bumpy course. The support of their friends may be particularly important for them.
More than ever they need the love that you have tried to provide all along. They also have even more need of the limits that you have set. They may like to talk to someone outside the family who is not in danger of being too upset by hearing about what they are feeling, but it is best not to assume that this is automatically wanted or needed.
Other Issues for grieving children
Children’s grief expresses three issues:
- Did I cause the death to happen?
- Is it going to happen to me?
- Who is going to take care of me?
(1) Did I cause the death to happen?
Children often think that they have magical powers. If a mother says in irritation, “You’ll be the death of me” and later dies, her child may wonder if he or she actually caused the mother’s death. Also, when children argue, one may say (or think), “I wish you were dead.” Should that child die, the surviving child may think that his or her thoughts actually caused the death.
(2) Is it going to happen to me?
The death of another child may be especially hard for a child. If the child thinks that the death may have been prevented (by either a parent or a doctor) the child may think that he or she could also die.
(3) Who is going to take care of me?
Since children depend on parents and other adults to take care of them, a grieving child may wonder who will care for him or her after the death of an important person.