Grief and Mourning in Children: How to Understand and Help Them

February 12, 2018

When there is a death in the family or in our circle of close friends it is difficult for all of us. We mustn’t forget, however, that the children suffer too. We don’t always understand how they grieve, though. Grief in children is difficult to understand. We see them acting differently from how we would expect them to, and we don’t know what to do to help. Does it not affect them like it does adults? Or do they show it in a different way?

What actually happens is that the little ones do understand, but they process the mourning in different ways. It all depends on what stage of life they are at. If adults understand how children experience mourning or bereavement then it will make us more able to help them in these difficult moments. Keep reading!

“Time is a doctor that heals all grief”

-Dyphile-

Grief in children under three years

In these first years of life, children are very dependent physically and emotionally on the person who cares for them. This role is usually played by the mother. When this figure that has provided so much protection and love dies, the child suffers greatly.

Although they don’t understand what death is and its consequences, what they do notice is the absence of the person who has been the cornerstone in their life. Therefore, from the age of 6 or 8 months, it’s possible to see behavior in babies that indicates that they are suffering. This important person is not there any more and they have the intuition that they won’t see them again.

They feel they have been abandoned and that they are now unprotected. They look for the missing person with their eyes or they cry inconsolably, waiting for them to return. There may also be a rejection of new protective figures, sleep disturbance, feeding problems or tantrums. In children who can already talk, you can see the way they ask about the person who has died, although after a few minutes they seem to forget they were talking about them.

At this age it is very important that children feel loved and protected by another person as soon as possible. This is not going to stop them from waiting for the person who has passed away to return. It will, however, help the grief pass and, little by little, normality will return.

Grief in children

Grief in children between three and seven

When children are between 3 and 7 years old, they acquire more abilities and understand more than when they were younger. They don’t, however, understand that death is irreversible. It is therefore very common for them to insist that they will see the person who has died again, even if we explain to them that this is not going to happen.

Even though they think that their loved one will return, their absence causes innumerable negative emotions. Fear, sadness, anger or guilt are some of these feelings. The child feels abandoned and separation anxiety usually appears. This doesn’t only occur in a psychological sense, but it also comes out in their behavior.

Grief in children often results in bad behavior, disobedience or temper tantrums to occur. The child may also not want to get involved in new activities, they may wet themselves or have nightmares. This is normal and usually disappears over time. If it doesn’t then this could indicate that they are not coping well with the grief and that the child needs help from a psychologist.

“If you suppress grief too much, it can well redouble”

-Molière-

Grief in children from 6 or 7 years old to 11 or 12

From 6 or 7 years old little ones begin to understand what death is and what someone’s death actually means. The way to process the grief changes a bit now. At this age the first thing that usually happens is rejection and denial. This cannot be happening! Is this not the way you reacted when you were told of the death of a loved one?

Grief in children, boy playing guitar

As well as denying the fact, it is also normal for children either to feel guilty or to blame the deceased person. This is because they are at a stage in their life when they personify everything. Other feelings such as anger or fear also appear. The latter usually manifests itself in the constant need to be with the people that they love because they worry that they may die too.

“Nobody ever told me that grief feels like fear”

-C.S. Lewis-

Violent behavior, rejection of other family members, aggression, nightmares or lack of concentration may also occur. It shouldn’t be overlooked that, on occasions, a child may express a desire to go and be with the deceased person. For this reason we must be aware of possible suicidal thoughts.

It is very important that the people in the child’s life help him or her to accept the death of the person they loved so much. Teachers, friends and relatives of children play a fundamental role in these difficult times and can help a child’s grief progress in a normal way, as they go through the mourning process.

Images courtesy of Tim Graf, Michal Parzuchowski and Laith Abuabdu.