While working in grief, I get a lot of concerns and questions from parents and caregivers asking if their child is grieving normally.
The most common worries I hear are:
“They were just crying and now they're playing.”
“They haven’t cried at all since the death.”
“They seemed to be fine when they were nine, but now they are twelve, and it's bothering them more than it ever did.”
The positive thing about all of these statements is that they are all normal. These are some typical ways that most children grieve. One thing to remember is that every person’s, even children’s, grief journey is different. No two children will grieve in exactly the same way.
Birth - 2 Years Old
At this stage, children do not understand death. They can only sense when adults in their life are feeling upset or distressed. It can be difficult to have a conversation about death with a child in this age range and more often than not they will not understand. Children who are verbal in this age range may ask where the deceased person is even after explaining death to them. Sometimes they may have separation anxiety or issues with feeding and digestion.
3 - 5 Years Old
Children in this age range understand death a bit more, but do not see it as concrete as it really is. Sometimes they believe that it can be reversed. Children in this age range can only absorb as much as they can understand. For example, to explain that their father died of a malignant tumor would probably go right over their heads. It is easier to explain to them that their father’s body was sick and stopped working. With this age range it is important to be age appropriately concrete with explaining death. I have worked with children in the past who believe their deceased person was “on vacation” and would return soon. While difficult to say to children, it is important to use the words “dead” and “died” as well as letting them know the deceased will not be returning. You might have to explain what happened repeatedly regarding the death. Children at this age often don’t want to be alone. Sometimes they do not understand why everyone is so sad and will alternate from grieving to playing. They can feel guilt over the death. They can also regress in behavior, such as using baby talk, sucking their thumb, or wetting the bed.
6 - 8 Years Old
Children in this age range tend to understand that death is a permanent thing. Sometimes they believe they can change what happened by better behavior. They can also hold their emotions in or become very emotional. Sometimes this can lead to aggressive behavior or a desire to withdraw. Behavior aggression is also appropriate at this age. Many children at this age will try to become an expert of what caused their person to die. For example, a child who had a person die by cancer might want to become a doctor so they can find a cure for cancer. Allow your child to have age-appropriate exploration about what caused their person to die. It is important to validate their feelings of wanting to change things.
9 - 11 Years Old
Children at this age tend to know that death is permanent and is not something that can be changed. Some tend to have anxiety about their own mortality. They may want to explore what happens after death. Again, regression and separation anxiety are normal. Some children really want to explore their grief emotions while others do not want to touch it. They focus on relationships during this period. Grades can also dip during this time. Something very important to be aware of is that children in this age range will try to take on the role of the person who died. For example, if grandma was the one who died and she normally baked the birthday cake for family members, the child might try to do this.
12 Years Old and Older
Adolescents have an awareness of death and it is similar to how adults view it. Survivor’s guilt is very common in this age range. Due to this, they tend to avoid things that will cause them happiness. They want independence, but their emotional state might be shaky. Mood changes happen frequently. They can go from anger to sadness quickly. Grades can suffer. A lot of adolescents feel as if other peers do not understand what they have been through, and they struggle to fit in. They can sometimes engage in risky behaviors to cope.
For children of all ages, it is important to validate their feelings and understand that their grief process is unique to them. As a caregiver, be aware of your own grief. Children and adolescents almost always tend to model the grief their caregiver is showing. Honor your own grief journey as well as your child’s. Caring for yourself, is caring for your child. We want to support yours and your child's grief journey. Reach out to us if your family has lost a loved-one.
To read more on processing grief, read our blog "What is Grief Supposed to Look Like?" by Mind Works counselor, Rachel Saenz.