Grief, Bereavement, and Coping With Loss (PDQ®): Supportive care - Patient Information [NCI] - Children and Grief
A child's grief process is different from an adult's.
Children do not react to loss in the same ways as adults. These are some of the ways children's grief is different:
- Children may seem to show grief only once in a while and for short times. This may be because a child is not able to feel strong emotions for long periods of time. A grieving child may be sad one minute and playful the next. Often families think the child doesn't really understand the loss or has gotten over it quickly. Usually, neither is true. Children's minds protect them from what is too much for them to handle emotionally.
- Mourning is a process that continues over years in children. Feelings of loss may occur again and again as the child gets older. This is common at important times, such as going to camp, graduating from school, getting married, or having children.
- Grieving children may not show their feelings as openly as adults. Grieving children may throw themselves into activities instead of withdrawing or showing grief.
- Children cannot think through their thoughts and feelings like adults. Children have trouble putting their feelings about grief into words. Strong feelings of anger and fears of death or being left alone may show up in the behavior of grieving children. Children often play death games as a way of working out their feelings and worries. These games give children a safe way to express their feelings.
- Grieving adults may withdraw and not talk to other people about the loss. Children, however, often talk to the people around them (even strangers) to see how they react and to get clues for how they should respond to the loss.
- Children may ask confusing questions. For example, a child may ask, "I know grandpa died, but when will he come home?" This is a way of testing reality and making sure the story of the death has not changed.
Several factors can affect how a child will cope with grief.
Although grief is different for each child, several factors can affect the grief process of a child:
- The child's age and stage of development.
- The child's personality.
- The child's previous experiences with death.
- The child's relationship with the deceased.
- The cause of death.
- The way the child acts and communicates within the family.
- How stable the family life is after the loss.
- How the child continues to be cared for.
- Whether the child is given the chance to share and express feelings and memories.
- How the parents cope with stress.
- Whether the child has ongoing relationships with other adults.
Children at different stages of development have different understandings of death and the events near death.
Infants do not recognize death, but feelings of loss and separation are part of developing an awareness of death. Children who have been separated from their mother may be sluggish and quiet, may not respond to a smile or a coo, may have physical symptoms (such as weight loss), and may sleep less.