There is nothing in a child’s life to prepare them for death. While children pass through the same stages of grief as adults, due to their limited life experiences, they will grieve differently. It is important to remember that every person and child grieves differently and at his or her own pace. Children experience loss and grief in many different circumstances. The sadness they feel due to the loss of a parent or other loved one may be experienced in many different ways over time.
Swiss psychiatrist, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, described grief as having five specific stages, moving from denial to anger to bargaining, then to depression and finally acceptance. In fact, while this is a useful framework for describing the components of grief, people do not move through the stages in a linear fashion. Recent research supports a more dynamic experience with movement in and out of these states over time.
When a child grieves the loss of a loved one, you might not even realize that they’re grieving. Kids process and display complex emotions differently than adults. However, that doesn’t mean the grief is not happening and that your child isn’t affected by their emotions. What’s more, children aren’t too young to grieve
This is the first stage of grief. Children want to continue to believe that everything is okay and that nothing bad has actually happened. If they were to take in all the emotion related to the loss right away, it would be too overwhelming so they may deny the loss thus giving their body and mind have a little time to adjust to the way things are now without the deceased.
Denial is often characterized by such variant reactions such as avoidance, confusion, shock, and fear. It may seem counter-intuitive, but denial is the stage that very often is necessary to survive the immediate impact of the loss. By thinking that life no longer makes sense, or is too overwhelming, the psyche is shutting down and retreating into an unreal world that protects it from the frightening reality.
A child may harbor a false hope that none of this horror is true. Mommy or Daddy will soon walk through the door, and this terrible nightmare will abruptly end. Denial is crucial to help the child cope and survive the grief event. Denial shields the child from becoming completely overwhelmed with grief and thereby prevent its full impact to be felt all at once.
During this stage, a child may blame others for their difficulties. This particular stage can last for days, weeks, months and years. It is when the earliest feelings are replaced by frustration and anxiety. Kids may be angry, irritable, and difficult to get along with. It is best for your child and others involved with your child to encourage expression of and discussion about their angry feelings.
Once the denial and shock start to fade, the healing process begins. At this point, those terrible feelings that the child was suppressing rise to the surface. This next stage often involves frustration, irritation, and anxiety. Once reality begins to descend on the child, the questions arise, “why me?”, “is life fair?”, and on and on.
Because the child cannot comprehend that this could happen, she may direct blame and anger towards others in the family, or towards The Divine. Researchers and mental health professionals agree that although this anger is painful, it is essential for these feelings to be expressed. Anger is indeed a necessary stage of grief.
Experts in the field believe that although it may seem that the child is in an endless cycle of anger, it will dissipate. It has been found that the more truly the child feels the anger, the more quickly the anger will dissipate, and the faster the child will heal.
Whereas in everyday life, the child is instructed to control his anger, there is a different calculus regarding a grief event. Very often such profound loss is accompanied by the sense of being disconnected from reality, that the child is no longer grounded in this world. The child’s life is shattered, and there is nothing substantial upon which to hold. Strangely enough, anger is something to grasp onto- a necessary step in healing.
A child may start to exhibit behaviors that seem very positive, including appearing to be very mature. School work may improve dramatically. The child may believe that doing everything “just right” will fix the situation. Bargaining is often accompanied by guilt. This is basically our way of negotiating with the hurt and pain of the loss.
After the anger begins to subside, very often you will find the child attempting to make a deal with The Divine or some family member perceived to be powerful. Perhaps the child will say, “I will never be bad again if you just bring my daddy back!” This is called bargaining, and it is the way the child clings to a desperate yet false sense of hope.
The child feels that perhaps the pain and grief somehow could be negotiated away. So desperate is the child to rid himself of the pain that he is willing to commit himself to substantive changes in his life if that is what is what bringing back his home or loved one requires. The child is saying, “I am willing to do anything it takes to return life to normal.”
This phase may be a delayed but often occurs when reality really sinks in. During this stage of grief, intense sadness, decreased sleep, reduced appetite, and loss of motivation are common.
Once the child realizes that the negotiation isn’t going anywhere because no one can “make the deal,” she often feels overwhelmed, helpless and empty. These are the telltale signs of depression. Finally, the powerful realization that the person or the home that once was central to life itself is really gone, never to return.
When this finally sinks in, the child may be seen to withdraw from life, walk around in a fog, feel completely numb, or even decline an invitation to get out of bed. Being part of the world is overwhelming, there is no interest in being around others, and there is a reluctance even to talk. The “new reality” renders life utterly hopeless.
Finally, children often enter this stage once they have processed their initial grief emotions, are able to accept that the loss has occurred and cannot be undone, and are once again able to plan for their futures and re-engage in daily life.
The final stage of grief is acceptance. However, acceptance doesn’t mean that it is okay that my parents are divorced, or one of them died. Instead, it is the felt sense that I am going to make it and be alright anyway. In this stage, as the child reenters reality, her emotions begin to stabilize. The child comes to terms with the fact that life will never be the same, but life can be lived nonetheless.
This is a time of adjustment and readjustment. Some days are good, some days are bad, and then the good days return. Don’t expect the child never to have another bad day – filled with uncontrollable sadness, but the good days will begin to outnumber the bad days.
The fog will leave and engagement with friends will begin anew. Perhaps most importantly, the child will start to understand that while the home will never be the same, nor can the loved one ever be replaced, there is the sense that it is possible to live a new reality.
Reaching his stage of acceptance completes the metamorphosis. This child is now a different person whose capacity to live and experience life is far beyond that child who suffered the traumatic loss that began the process.
It is important to recognize that children, like adults, may move between the different stages at different rates and can jump around between each phase. Recovery is more of a process than an event.
When a child suffers the loss of a loved one, often their grieving goes unnoticed. Grief is not a linear experience, especially in children. Children display emotions differently than adults. Grief for kids is both emotional, intellectual, social, and physical. A child’s level of understanding, reactive behaviors, and needs will all vary depending on their age.
DIFFERENT LEVELS OF UNDERSTANDING
Some adults wrongfully assume that young children do not comprehend death. While some young children may not understand the permanence of death, their level of understanding grows as they age. For example, children five and younger may not clearly remember the person who has died, fully understand death, ideas about an afterlife, or temporary versus permanent absence. However, they will still experience grief, have needs, and express grief through their behaviors.
Grief in children is tricky because younger children may not understand the concept of death and its permanence. A child might believe that death is temporary, particularly because so many cartoons show a character being mortally wounded and then coming back to life.
Consequently, younger kids often miss a loved one in small spurts and may be sad for a few minutes every now and again. But because they have trouble understanding that death is permanent, they won’t fully grasp what the loss will really mean to their life.
Children begin to understand that death is permanent between ages six and nine and can develop fear, guilt, and blame. At ages 10-12, practical questions may be asked about death and how it will affect their family. From ages 13-18, children have a complete understanding of death and can begin to worry about themselves. They can also question religion, philosophical beliefs, and even doctors.
Just like understanding of death varies by age, so do the signs of grief. It’s important to recognize when your child is grieving so you can ensure they’re dealing with emotions in a healthy way. In fact, one study found that interventions can help a child cope with a loss in a healthy way and help prevent the development of mental health issues or traumatic grief.
Signs a Child Is Grieving
When an adult grieves, it seems to be ever-present, even in moments of happiness. Children, however, often seem fine one moment, only to become very upset the next, because their brains can’t seem to cope with the sadness for long periods of time.
They may continue to expect the person who has passed away to show up at any moment. This denial is normal for a while, but over time, the reality of the loss should begin to sink in, especially with older children. Whether your child has lost a pet, teacher, neighbor, or family member, here are some other things you might see after the loss.
Children may be extra clingy after a loss. They may cry about having to go to school or they might ask for help for tasks they previously mastered just to get your attention. Infants and toddlers can sense the distress in their caregivers, so they might respond by being irritable, crying more, and wanting to be held even if they aren’t aware of the loss.
Toddlers and preschoolers may start wetting the bed or stop sleeping through the night. Meanwhile, a small child might revert to crawling, baby talk or want to drink from a bottle again.
Older children and teenagers who have experienced loss often show grief by falling behind in studies or failing classes that they once aced. They also may have trouble concentrating on tasks or fail to complete assignments.
Grief-stricken children might want to sleep with parents or others close to them, or they could have nightmares or dreams about the person who died. Meanwhile, older children may have a bit of insomnia or may be afraid of death which keeps them from sleeping.
Sometimes children might not be able to focus on any particular activity or have trouble making decisions or solving problems. They also struggle to focus and may appear distracted or lost in space.
Both children and teens may start to worry about everything, but particularly about other people in their life dying. They will need reassurance that they will be safe and looked after on a daily basis. This need is particularly evident among preschoolers.
Feelings of Abandonment
Children might feel betrayed, rejected, or abandoned by the person who died, and perhaps by others as well. Consequently, they may need to be reassured that you will be there for them.
Make sure you keep your promises, especially during this time period, so that these fears about abandonment will not persist.
Children of all ages may react to grief by displaying behavioral problems that didn’t exist before. They may begin acting out in school or talking back at home. Likewise, teenagers may be drawn to riskier behavior, such as drinking or taking drugs.
It’s common for kids to blame themselves for a loved one’s death. Children might think it’s their fault because they once wished the person would “go away” or they might somehow think their actions caused the person’s death.
Changes in Play
Young children may start talking about death in their pretend play more. Their stuffed animals, dolls, or action figures may die and come back to life. If you witness this behavior, you need to recognize that your child is grieving the loss.
As all children are affected by death, it can alter their behavior. Often, negative words and actions are misdirected, which is how child grief can go unnoticed. At any age, aggression can occur. However, as children get older, acting out becomes common while grieving, whether in school, at home, or with friends. It’s crucial to identify out of character behavior, address why it is happening, and present alternative methods to cope. Grief behavior is not limited to “bad” or discouraged behavior. Grief behavior includes being the “golden child,” too.
THE NEEDS OF A GRIEVING CHILD
As a child’s caregiver, or supportive adult relationship, it’s vital to encourage healthy coping methods. For children of any age, the following are always beneficial:
- Honesty while answering questions about death
- Proactive ways to express feelings (grief programs, art, writing, etc.)
- Reassurance, validation, and listening of feelings
- Continued emotional support and encouragement
How to Help a Child Cope
It’s not easy for an adult to deal with their own grief and navigate helping a child with their grief. But it’s important to help kids learn how to cope. Here are some strategies you can use to help your child deal with grief.
Using euphemisms, such as “we lost him” or “she’s sleeping now,” can confuse and scare a little one. It’s important for children to understand that the person isn’t just sleeping or lost, but rather their body stopped working and they are not coming back. Of course, gruesome details aren’t necessary, but you should make a point to tell the truth.
Acknowledge the Loss
It’s up to you to decide if it’s appropriate for your child to attend the funeral. But, if your child is scared to go, don’t force them to do so. You can find other ways to acknowledge your child’s loss. Write a letter to the loved one, hold your own private celebration of life, light a candle, or create a scrapbook at home.
A child’s grief cycles in and out, and to an adult, it can feel like they’re dwelling on the loss after you thought they had moved on. It’s crucial to be patient and respond similarly with comfort and truth every time they return to a moment of grief.
Remember that a reminder, such as the anniversary of the death, could reawaken the grieving process.
Speak With Caregivers
Teachers, particularly, should be in the loop as to what’s going on with the family. They need to know information about the death, whom to turn to if they’re seeing signs of distress, and an appropriate way to support the child if they’re having an emotional moment.
Take Care of Yourself
Your child will look to you to see how to deal with their feelings, so it’s important to make sure you’re taking care of yourself. Talk about your feelings openly but be careful not to burden your child with too many adult issues. It may be helpful for you to speak with a grief counselor or to attend a grief support group to help you care for your emotions.
Read Books About Grief
Your child may benefit from reading stories about loss, death, and grief. Be prepared to answer questions about what happens to people when they die. And if you don’t know the answer, it’s OK to say you aren’t sure.
Signs Down the Road
You might not see many signs of grief immediately following a loss, especially if a child is young. But that doesn’t mean you won’t see signs of grief years later.
Four-year-olds who lose their father won’t understand the finality of death at the time. But when they’re 10 and there’s a father-daughter dance or a father-son fishing trip, they might begin to show signs of grief as the reality of what they lost really sinks in.
Similarly, 7-year-olds might seem to resolve their grief rather quickly after they lose a grandparent. But during their teenage years, they may show signs of grief as they begin to understand the things they missed out on by not having their grandparent in their life, or they may regret not spending more time with them when they were alive.
There’s no timeline when it comes to grief, no matter how young or old a person is.
As a result, it’s not productive to suggest that it’s time for a child to “get over it.” The grief may last a lifetime, but with support, grief can turn into healing for the whole family.
Parents can help their children by grieving with them, listening, offering love and reassurance, helping memorialize the deceased, encouraging questions, and seeking professional help if needed.