At the Bereavement Center, we get many calls from parents who are concerned about their children's responses to a death. These parents are usually asking for information about how their children are grieving and how they can help them heal. Below is some information about children's grief and how you can be available and supportive to your child as he/she finds ways to cope with a significant loss.
The first important point is that all children grieve. Even babies respond to changes in the emotional climate of the home when a death has occurred. Children's responses to a death do vary based on their developmental level and life experiences. Typically, a child younger than five years old may not understand that death is permanent, and they may frequently ask over and over when the person who died will return. They will often express their grief through moodiness, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, changes in toileting patterns, clinginess and nightmares.
As they grow, children between the ages of five and nine begin to understand the permanence of death. They now know that the person who died will not be coming back. They will usually express their grief similarly to the younger children just described. There is likely to be a greater ability for verbal expression of feeling and they may have more detailed questions about the specific circumstances of the death in addition to worries about themselves or other loved ones dying.
From age ten through adolescence, young people understand that death is final, inevitable and universal. Their grief is often expressed through difficulties with motivation and concentration, increased isolation in general, distancing from family with a tendency to spend most of their time with friends, expressions of sadness and anger, and misbehavior at home and/or school. Any significant changes in your child's behavior after the death may be interpreted as a grief reaction.
Children of all ages are likely to express their grief through physical symptoms so you may hear many complaints of stomachaches, headaches, dizziness, fatigue and more. School problems may develop when a death has occurred in a child's life. School age children will need help re-entering school after a loss, as well as support from teachers, administrators and guidance staff in creating a safe and secure environment. The ability to concentrate in class, to care about grades, or to complete the required work is often difficult for a grieving child. Speaking to staff members and helping them to understand your child's needs can be effective in addressing these difficulties.
Though there is healing that occurs after a loss, grieving is a lifelong process which is likely to be revisited at different points throughout your child’s life as he/she passes through varying developmental stages and life events (e.g., graduation, marriage). Being aware of the typical responses to grief can help both you and your child to better cope with the feelings and behaviors that emerge and re-emerge after a loss.