Grief and Children…What is the Process?

Experiencing a traumatic event like a death of a loved one can be an overwhelming process for people of all ages. For children, this can be especially difficult. Grief is a natural healing process, but it’s different between adults and children. The way children process their emotions depends on their age and development level. Children might have questions about what death is and confusion with their thoughts and feelings surrounding it.

Let’s take a look at their understanding by age levels. Infants have no understanding of death but they are aware of separation. They will most likely cry and change their eating and sleeping habits.

Children ages 3-6 do not fully understand what it means when someone dies. They believe that death is temporary, and that the person might be asleep. Children at this age can go through feelings of guilt. They may believe that the person died because they did something bad. Children might try to reverse the death by behaving better and hoping that the person would “wake up.” At this age, it is difficult for children to verbalize their feelings so they might act out aggressively, show physical symptoms, and cause a shift in routine.

Children ages 6-12 are better able to understand death. They are learning about death and what it might mean from a spiritual and religious perspective. The mind is curious at this age so they might ask a lot of questions about the death of that person and what happens after. Children at this age can still struggle with verbalizing feelings. They may show signs of aggression, intense sadness, physical symptoms, lower performance in school or other activities, and struggles in relationships.

Teenagers can understand death, but they do not have all the tools to start the coping process. They may act out with all of the symptoms that children do, but there is a higher risk to include drug use, alcohol use, aggression toward others, and even engage in sexual behavior.

Children may experience feelings of grief in waves. They might not feel intense feelings constantly, but ups and downs over a period of time. These intense feelings are also expected to show up in other life events like birthdays, weddings, and anniversaries due to triggers. Children might also express physical symptoms such as stomachaches or headaches. Grief can affect their concentration in school or other extracurricular activities. This is all normal after the loss of a loved one. A child needs to process their loss safely and productively.

A few ways that parents can help their child process their grief include:

  1. Be honest with your child and use correct terminology. Use the term “died” when speaking to them. Other phrases will add further confusion to the child’s process. Explaining that they can no longer do things like they could when they were alive, will help them understand what death means. 
  2. Have open and honest conversations with them. Be ready to discuss difficult questions that the child might have.
  3. Validate your child’s feelings and verbalize that you are there to support them.
  4. Encourage activities to do together, as well as by themselves. Reading books, playing games, drawing, painting, and sitting in sunshine can be therapeutic through this tough time. 
  5. Make sure that your child understands that it is not their fault.
  6. Expressing your emotions first as a parent or guardian, can motivate the child to discuss their own thoughts and feelings.
  7. Explain that grief is not always sadness. It can also be anger, guilt, shock, and denial.
  8. As more time passes, try to identify triggers with your child that may lead to intense feelings.
  9. Seek professional help if needed.
  10. Try to maintain a routine so their daily life is not affected tremendously.
  11. Find ways to honor the person that died and remember the person in a positive way.

If your child is struggling deeply with a loss to where their safety is concerned, please call 911 immediately and seek out help from a mental health professional.

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