Because children may not verbalize their feelings about death, it used to be thought that children really did not experience grief when a loved one died. Today, studies show that children often grieve and strongly, and as complicated, as adults, but simply in a different way. Dr. Alan Wolfelt said, “Anyone old enough to love is old enough to grieve.”
Preschool (Ages 2 – 4)
There are certain concepts that are involved in understanding death that a preschooler usually does not grasp. One of those concepts is the term “forever.” Children of this age see death as a temporary thing. When a preschooler is told that Daddy is never coming back, the child may nod in agreement and then an hour later ask, “Where is Daddy?” They do not see death as a part of the cycle of life. They cannot comprehend that it is something that could happen to them.
Another term that is difficult for a preschooler to understand is the idea of being “gone.” Death is explained to them by saying “Mommy has gone away” or “Mommy has gone to heaven.” The preschooler’s understanding of “gone” can be seen in the game of peek-a-boo that is played under a cover. The adult disappears and is gone, only to reappear a few moments later.
Preschoolers are focused on the present, the here and now. Their reactions to grief are usually brief, but can be very intense. Because their vocabulary is so limited, their responses are usually through tears and crying, or a tantrum-like outburst.
The preschool age developmentally is when the child begins to understand attachments to significant adults and to build trust in that adult. When an adult with whom bonds are being built dies, the child becomes very anxious about the separation and the changed pattern of life. Grief for them centers around the change that is taking place within their world.
Early Childhood (Ages 4 – 7)
Early childhood aged children also view death as temporary and reversible. Their frame of reference is often cartoons where the character is injured or killed and comes back to life. They believe the same thing will happen for their lost loved one. Developmentally, this age makes connections between feelings, events and people.
Because death is still a foreign concept to this age group, many children make wrong connections about death. If a child was playing with a new toy on the day that the sister died, the child may connect the death with the toy. The connection may go beyond an individual item to include all items: the child may not want to play with any toys again.
The child of this age may also associate themselves with the death. If the child had been feeling negative toward the sister and then the sister died, the child may feel guilty for somehow causing the death.
Just like the preschooler, this age group may search for the deceased or often question where he/she is. At this age, questions about death and the process of death may be common. Themes of the loss or of the funeral may come to the forefront as they are playing with their dolls or actions figures.
Although the actual grief outbursts may be very short, the child of this age is very much aware of the loss and is grieving. Under the surface, emotions of sadness, anger and confusion may thread throughout the majority of the day. A child of this age may see a change in eating or sleeping patterns. Another characteristic is that this age child may be fearful that other loved ones will leave them also.
Upper Elementary (Ages 7 – 10)
A change begins to take place in perspective for the upper elementary student. While they may want to see death as reversible, they begin to see that not only is death final, but it is also universal. At this age a child is very curious about death and will ask candid questions about the details of death in general or of a specific individual. They will have queries about funerals, burials and cremation.
Some will begin to ask if there is anything that happens after death. They may begin to have an understanding about life after death, heaven and angels. Often they will see themselves as a ghost, angel or boogeyman after death.
At this age they begin to understand that death can happen to anyone. They realize that there are many things that can cause death. Typically they still do not think that death can happen to them or their family members. They see death as something that happens to very old or very sick people. At this point most cannot visualize how someone else’s death will impact their own, which can lead to anxiety.
Responses to death at this age run the gamut, from withdrawal and sadness to inappropriate laughter and insensitivity. Other typical responses may include denial, depression, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, regressive behavior like bedwetting, or anxiety.
The child in this age group will begin to formulate coping mechanisms for dealing with death. A very common one is to fantasize or role play how they might prevent a death. Pretending to be a superhero who cannot be affected by death to a skilled surgeon who saves lives are ways to express their ability to cope. A child of this age may idolize the deceased as a way to stay connected with them and to keep their memory alive.
Middle School (Ages 10 – 12)
Pre-adolescent children are undergoing a host of changes and their understanding and processing of death and grief is no different. During these ages, they are in the process of becoming more independent from their parents. As a result they are bonded and dependent upon their friends at an intense rate. During these years, they will want to formulate their own opinion and response to death, but it will have to be filtered through the acceptance and support of their peers. Boys, for example, may not want to show sadness or tears lest they be made fun of by their friends. It would not be uncommon for a pre-adolescent to say “I know Grandpa is dead and I will miss him, but I don’t understand why Mom is so upset about it.”
The child in the middle school years may express feelings of grief through inappropriate means. They may demonstrate anger and tantrum fits, shouting and yelling, irritability, and bullying others, especially younger siblings. They may also feel moodiness, changes in sleeping and eating patterns, indifference toward responsibility and authority particularly around school, and isolation from their friends.
Teen Years (Ages 13 – 17)
The teen takes more steps toward independence in all aspects of life. Counseling centers have noticed that teens respond better to adults who choose to walk with them on the path of grief rather than trying to dictate how they are to feel. Adults who will make an impact on the grieving process for the teen will model positive coping skills rather than lecture them.
Grieving is a natural reaction to death and loss, but for the teen it may not feel natural because the feelings and emotions are difficult for the teen to control. The feeling of anger for the untimely death of a family member is normal, but the teen may feel it exponentially and not be able to manage it properly. The out of control feeling may make the teen feel overwhelmed, anxious and frightened.
While some adults will present that there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to grieve, the teen is apt to grieve for different lengths of time and may express the grief in a wide range of ways. The teen is likely to see that grief, like most everything else in life, does not follow a simple pattern.
When modeled correctly and supported by trusted adults, many teens come to learn that there are constructive and destructive ways of expressing grief. Facing grief by journaling, talking with friends, creating art or music, taking contemplative walks or meditating will be seen as better than holding the feelings inside. The teen will begin to see that there are destructive ways of expressing grief and escaping pain because they have long lasting consequences. The teen may start to see that adults can choose bad routes to cope: alcohol, drugs, reckless sexual behavior, antisocial behaviors, excessive demonstrations of anger and even constant sleep.