Grief and Developmental Stages
Death and the events surrounding it are understood differently depending on a child's age and developmental stage (see Table 2).
Although infants do not recognize death, feelings of loss and separation are part of a developing death awareness. Children who have been separated from their mothers and deprived of nurturing can exhibit changes such as listlessness, quietness, unresponsiveness to a smile or a coo, physical changes (including weight loss), and a decrease in activity and lack of sleep.
Ages 2 to 3 years
In this age range, children often confuse death with sleep and can experience anxiety. In the early phases of grief, bereaved children can exhibit loss of speech and generalized distress.[3,6]
Ages 3 to 6 years
In this age range, children view death as a kind of sleep: the person is alive, but in some limited way. They do not fully separate death from life and may believe that the deceased continues to live (for instance, in the ground where he or she was buried) and often ask questions about the activities of the deceased person (e.g., how is the deceased eating, going to the toilet, breathing, or playing?). Young children can acknowledge physical death but consider it a temporary or gradual event, reversible and not final (like leaving and returning, or a game of peek-a-boo). A child's concept of death may involve magical thinking, i.e., the idea that his or her thoughts can cause actions. Children may feel that they must have done or thought something bad to become ill or that a loved one's death occurred because of some personal thought or wish. In response to death, children younger than 5 years will often exhibit disturbances in eating, sleeping, and bladder or bowel control.[3,6]
Ages 6 to 9 years
It is not unusual for children in this age range to become very curious about death, asking very concrete questions about what happens to one's body when it stops working. Death is personified as a separate person or spirit: a skeleton, ghost, angel of death, or bogeyman. Although death is perceived as final and frightening, it is not universal. Children in this age range begin to compromise, recognizing that death is final and real but mostly happens to older people (not to themselves). Grieving children can develop school phobias, learning problems, and antisocial or aggressive behaviors; can exhibit hypochondriacal concerns; or can withdraw from others. Conversely, children in this age range can become overly attentive and clinging. Boys may show an increase in aggressive and destructive behavior (e.g., acting out in school), expressing their feelings in this way rather than by openly displaying sadness. When a parent dies, children may feel abandoned by both their deceased parent and their surviving parent, since the surviving parent is frequently preoccupied with his or her own grief and is less able to emotionally support the child.[3,6]