Children Often Misunderstood in Grief

From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 7, 2000 (Atlanta) --- Not everyone handles grief the same way. According to an article recent issue of the Journal of Practical Psychology and Behavior Health, this is especially true for children.

"Children grieve in ways that many adults can't make sense of," Francine Cournos, MD, tells WebMD. "For example, children don't act like adults in their grief. They grieve intermittently and lead adults to think they're not mourning." Cournos is the author of the article and professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University in New York.

In 1948, when Cournos was 3 years old, her father died. Eight years later, with her mother in the hospital terminally ill with breast cancer, her cousin chastised her for making noise and chasing her sister around the house. "How can you play like that," her cousin said. "Don't you realize your mother is in critical condition?"

"Her angry words stung me, angered me, reminded me of the unbridgeable gulf between myself and the adults around me," writes Cournos. "I knew nothing of what happened to Mom when she was in the hospital. No one talked to me about it. Mom didn't call, and children weren't allowed to visit. I didn't even understand what the word 'critical' meant."

Cournos says the loss of a parent is one of the most profound influences in a child's life. Citing numerous studies on the subject, she says too often grieving children are shielded from the truth, or their grief is not taken seriously by adults. "You can't really protect children from things that are obvious," Cournos tells WebMD. "The idea that children can be shielded is wishful thinking on the part of the adults."

Cournos tells WebMD that studies show children are less anxious when they are informed. "Even when they're not informed they still know something is wrong. Often they have fantasies that are more frightening than [an] age-appropriate explanation."

Cournos says that after a parent dies, most children are reluctant to let go of that parent. Often they idealize or glorify the parent, and fantasize about the parent's return.


However, Cournos, citing a paper entitled "Absence of Grief" by Helene Deutsch, writes that many children display indifference following the death of a loved one, but that the child's real feelings are anything but indifference.

Ultimately, she says, "instead of becoming less attached to a parent who has died, which is what mourning should accomplish, children and adolescents tend to increase their feelings of attachment."

Cournos says that children often feel guilty about their parent's illness. "Children believe they are the center of their own universe and what happens around them they have control over," she tells WebMD. "I had many guilty feelings that if I [had] paid more attention to the fact that ... my mother was sick [and] if I wasn't off trying to have a good time, she would have lived longer."

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