Understanding Your Child's Grief


Each child grieves differently. Some children openly express their emotions, while others keep their feelings closely guarded. Some are willing and able to talk about their loss. Others go to great lengths to avoid these conversations altogether. Similarly, it can be easy to see when some children are struggling and nearly impossible to tell how others are doing.

While it may be hard to know exactly how your child is coping, her age and developmental status may provide some insight into her grief. The following general guidelines may be helpful in understanding how children make sense of death. Keep in mind, however, that children differ in their emotional, intellectual and behavioral capacities.

Infants & Toddlers

  • Have no meaningful concept of death.
  • Will notice the absence of the parent who died, and may sense that you and others are grieving.
  • May become more fussy and clingy. They may also demonstrate changes in their eating and sleeping patterns. These can be the result of a disruption in routine that is common following the death of a parent.

Preschool-age Children

  • Do not have a well-formed understanding of death. Typically, they cannot grasp that death is permanent and cannot be reversed.
  • May not understand that bodily functions stop when someone dies. As a result, your child may ask how Mommy or Daddy is able to breathe or eat if she or he is dead.
  • Often ask the same questions over and over again. Since children this age learn through repetition, you may have to explain more than once, for example, that "Daddy is not coming back."
  • Engage in ‘magical thinking,’ which is the belief that two unconnected events are actually related. For example, your son or daughter may believe that wishing for Mommy to come back, will make it happen. Children this age may believe that something they did caused the death.
  • May fear that after losing one parent, they may lose you as well.
  • Regress developmentally, meaning that they begin act younger than they are. For example, a child who has been potty-trained may begin having "accidents" again. These regressions are not permanent.

School-age Children

  • Begin to grasp that death is permanent and irreversible.
  • May lack the verbal skills to express the complex feelings they are experiencing.
  • Are still prone to magical thinking, which is the belief that two unconnected events are actually related. For example, your daughter may believe that if she wishes for Daddy to come back, then he will. Or, she may believe that something he did caused Daddy’s death.
  • Fear separation from loved ones, especially you.
  • Regress developmentally, meaning that he or she starts acting younger. For example, your child may be clingy or be anxious when separating from you.

Teenagers

  • Understand well the implications of death, specifically, that it is permanent and irreversible.
  • May — despite a solid understanding of death — struggle to communicate their feelings or manage their behaviors.
  • May resist sharing thoughts and feelings with adults.
  • Are more aware of the impact that their parent's death has on the whole family. This includes things like financial hardships and the impact of grief on other family members.
  • Experience a difficult time socially. Teenagers often want to “fit in” with their peers. Having lost a parent can make this harder.
  • May not want to talk about grief with classmates or even close friends.
  • Are capable of seeking meaning of their parent's death.
  • May try to fill the role of the parent who died. For example, a teenage son who lost his father may feel pressure to be the "man of the house." This has the potential to blur the line between parent and child.