Skip to content

Cancer Health Center

Font Size

Children and Grief

    continued...

    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]

    Ages 9 years and older

    By the time a child is 9 years old, death is understood as inevitable and is no longer viewed as a punishment. By the time the child is 12 years old, death is viewed as final and universal.[3,6]

    Table 2. Grief and Developmental Stages

    AgeUnderstanding of DeathExpressions of Grief
    Infancy to 2 yearsIs not yet able to understand death.Quietness, crankiness, decreased activity, poor sleep, and weight loss.
    Separation from mother causes changes.
    2–6 yearsDeath is like sleeping.Asks many questions (How does she go to the bathroom? How does she eat?).
    Problems in eating, sleeping, and bladder and bowel control.
    Fear of abandonment.
    Tantrums.
    Dead person continues to live and function in some ways.Magical thinking (Did I think something or do something that caused the death? Like when I said I hate you and I wish you would die?).
    Death is temporary, not final.
    Dead person can come back to life.
    6–9 yearsDeath is thought of as a person or spirit (skeleton, ghost, bogeyman).Curious about death.
    Asks specific questions.
    May have exaggerated fears about school.
    Death is final and frightening.May have aggressive behaviors (especially boys).
    Some concerns about imaginary illnesses.
    Death happens to others; it will not happen to ME.May feel abandoned.
    9 and olderEveryone will die.Heightened emotions, guilt, anger, shame.
    Increased anxiety over own death.
    Mood swings.
    Death is final and cannot be changed.Fear of rejection; not wanting to be different from peers.
    Even I will die.Changes in eating habits.
    Sleeping problems.
    Regressive behaviors (loss of interest in outside activities).
    Impulsive behaviors.
    Feels guilty about being alive (especially related to death of a brother, sister, or peer).
    1|2|3|4|5|6

    Today on WebMD

    Colorectal cancer cells
    A common one in both men and women.
    Lung cancer xray
    See it in pictures, plus read the facts.
     
    sauteed cherry tomatoes
    Fight cancer one plate at a time.
    Ovarian cancer illustration
    Do you know the symptoms?
     
    Jennifer Goodman Linn self-portrait
    Blog
    what is your cancer risk
    HEALTH CHECK
     
    colorectal cancer treatment advances
    Video
    breast cancer overview slideshow
    SLIDESHOW
     
    prostate cancer overview
    SLIDESHOW
    lung cancer overview slideshow
    SLIDESHOW
     
    ovarian cancer overview slideshow
    SLIDESHOW
    Actor Michael Douglas
    Article