How Children Grieve
Many of us had living children at home at the time of our loss. Know that they grieve too. In the beginning, we are so consumed by our own grief that we do not realize that there are others grieving around us – spouse, children, grandparents. That is perfectly okay and understandable. However, at some point in our grief, we realize that the “little ones” are watching us and need to be told in whatever way you can that their brother or sister has died and gone to heaven and that the loss has made you very sad. I addition, they need to know that your sadness is NOT because of anything they have done. Your living children are truly compassionate and honest little beings who will crawl up in your lap and give you hugs, comfort you, and grieve with you.
Keep in mind, though, that a child’s grief is very different from an adult’s.
The following list is an overview of things to be aware of when a child is grieving.
They may be sad one moment and playing happily the next.
They may cling to familiar people.
They may regress with infantile behaviors (act younger than they are) or may display hyper-maturity trying to take care of mom (act older than they are).
They may think their sibling will come back to life or return after being “gone” somewhere.
They may develop a fear of death – either theirs or more likely fearing a parent dying.
They may display anger. Boys act out with aggression. Girls internalize and become obsessive caretakers.
They may have feelings of guilt if they had thoughts early on in the pregnancy that they didn’t want a baby sister or brother.
They may have difficulty putting into words what they feel. They may act out. Have them draw pictures of how they feel.
They may develop a curiosity about death. (e.g. want to touch a dead bird.)
They may ask concrete questions especially as they get older.
They may develop phobias like fear of school or separation anxiety.
They may develop physical ailments.
They may honestly tell others about the baby dying, sometimes shocking strangers.
Why do they do these things?
They feel anxious, insecure and out-of-control.
They feel abandoned. Grief consumes the parents.
They want to be punished because they feel guilty.
They are protecting themselves from future pain from a loss (by withdrawing from relationships).
They bottle up emotion, not knowing how to express it.
What can you do?
Tell the truth about death.
Give the child permission to be sad, cry, and show their feeling.
Allow the child to be a part of the funeral or some kind of memorial service.
Talk about the baby that died.
Allow all kinds of emotions, even the negative ones.
Know there are no “stages” of grief with younger children. They do not grieve like adults. They are randomly sad and back to regular life as if nothing happened.
Let the child vent. Have them talk about it or draw pictures of how they are feeling.
Help the child say good-bye to their sibling in ways they understand.
Help them see the joy and hope that can be found in living.
There are a few basic concepts to keep in mind.
1. The older the child is, the more they grieve like an adult.
HOWEVER, if a child is old enough to love, they are old enough to grieve. Some people think young children are too young to understand or experience death. This is so far from the truth!
2. Don’t shelter them and don’t lie to them.
HOWEVER, don’t wait for one big “tell-all.” Answer questions as they come up. Remember young children are “sporadic” mourners, sad one moment and playing happily the next. Answer questions with words they understand. And don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers. Just be honest!
3. Let children know you really care and understand their pain.
HOWEVER, give yourself time to do your own grieving. Be patient and supportive for your child, but also let them see you grieve. Just make sure they know that your sadness is not due to something they did. Mourning together can be very healing for both of you!
A Simple Chart of Age and Grieving Patterns
Death is something temporary and reversible. They often ask when the baby will come back.
“Magic” and make-believe are real. They think that their thoughts can make something happen.
Unrelated events are connected in cause and effect relationships. They may think they caused your sadness because of something unrelated that they did.
Curiosity with death is very real. They ask questions and often tell everyone about the death to see what their reaction should be.
Attention span is short. They may be sad one moment and playing or laughing the next. It is too difficult to grieve for long periods of time.
Children Ages 6 to 9
Their understanding of death is becoming clearer.
Death is permanent and cannot be changed. They see it as something that happens to others.
Death is personified, like a ghost or monster.
Magical thinking still exists.
Curiosity with what a body looks like after death is common.
Concrete questions are asked.
Children Ages 9 to 12
Grieving patterns are more like an adult’s.
For a child, the grieving pattern may look like this:
Feeling & Grieving
Understanding Death = a child knowing in their head that someone has died
Feeling & Grieving = a child’s head knowledge moves to the heart and they start feeling sad or scared
Commemorating = a child finding ways to comfort themselves. They may draw pictures, act out or tell others about it.
Moving On = a child weaving the death into their present life and trying to make sense of how to go on
How you can help your child:
The pattern may become circular as the child works through the process. Give children a “language” to use – that is, tools to express themselves & their emotions. This may include: information (kids ask questions), support (I’m here for you.), validation (what you feel is okay), permission to grieve (go ahead and cry), a sense of connection with the past (they will always be a part of our lives), good coping skills (anger is okay but punching your sister is not), and hope/faith (ask God for help).