Grief in Children
Therapy dogs get all “prettied up” to make their
appearance at our bereavement camps.
Infants and Toddlers
Babies and toddlers will become aware that something has changed. If the death involved their primary caregiver, an infant’s security will be shaken. They may cry more, exhibit changes in sleeping and eating patterns, and will need extra physical contact and tender care.
Toddlers may show regressive behavior. They don’t have the vocabulary to express their feelings of distress, so the baby-like behavior is the toddler’s way of seeking special care and attention. Try to keep changes in routine minimal during this sensitive time.
Young children may think the death is temporary. They may ask “When is Daddy coming back?” after you’ve explained the death a hundred times.
Some children may act like nothing has happened, while others may worry that their thoughts or actions caused the death. Children will display fear, anger, and sadness, but usually in short intervals.
Children this age need honest, simple answers to their questions. They need assurance that their needs will be met and that someone will always be there for them.
Six to Nine Years
Children this age may develop fears about their own death and may have nightmares. They may have trouble concentrating and schoolwork may suffer. Some children may be unable to sit still for long periods, or become aggressive and disruptive. Some of the preschool characteristics may still be present at times.
Nine Through Twelve
These children understand that death is final and universal. They may make jokes about death. Fitting in with their peers is extremely important at this age, so grieving children may feel “different”, self-conscious, and isolated. A decline in grades is not uncommon.
Thirteen and Up
Teens may hide their emotions behind risk-taking behavior, (alcohol, sexual promiscuity, speeding). They may have disruptions in sleeping and eating patterns. Teens try to control their strong emotions and don’t want to appear vulnerable. They may struggle with the loss for months or even years.
What Can Adults Do to Help?
We can listen when they are ready to share.
We can teach them it’s “OK to grieve” by being honest about our own feelings of grief. We don’t have to hide our tears.
If we are incapacitated by the loss, we need to recruit another adult to be a healthy presence of support in our child’s life.
Reassure the child that the changes they are experiencing physically, emotionally, and mentally are temporary and they will regain balance in their life with the passing of time.
Let them know it’s OK to take a break from grief and have fun. Sometimes, they need permission to laugh again.
There are some wonderful resources on this website’s Resource Page. Consider buying a book appropriate for your child’s age that explains how others have coped with a similar loss.
Don’t be afraid to seek professional help. If your child had an abcessed tooth or a broken leg, you would take them to a professional for help, wouldn’t you?
Point out the strengths you see in them. They need encouragement just like the rest of us.