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How Children Grieve, Part 3: Coping with loss at every stage

Updated: Apr 18

In America, we do a poor job of preparing our children for death, loss, and mourning. Understandably, as loving, supportive, and responsible caregivers we want to protect our kids from any sorrow and hardships. But in doing so, we fail to teach them powerful and crucial lessons about death or loss, and how to handle the emotions that come with it. Let's be honest, as adults, we can barely handle our own feelings of sadness, anger, rage, guilt, frustration, or relief! The last thing we want to do is watch our kids struggle with those feelings, too. Since dealing with death can feel so foreign, we tend to believe myths about children and grief, which can backfire and cause significant distress and confusion in our kids down the road. 

One myth we tell ourselves is that children don’t mourn.

But they do. They grieve off and on in spurts. Children have a limited capacity for sadness and a low threshold for emotional pain. It’s normal for kids to express sorrow and then run off to play with their friends. 

According to Trozzi (1999), children experience loss depending on their relationship with the person and the child’s age. Developmental stage and cognitive ability determine children's ability to understand death. Some examples you may have witnessed: 

  • A 3-year-old doesn't seem to care about the death of a great-grandparent they don't know. 

  • A 5-year-old feels deep sadness and yearning over the death of a beloved grandmother. 

  • A 10-year-old grieves for years over the death of the family dog. 

To help understand how children experience grief a bit better, here are some general guidelines for each developmental stage, but keep in mind: each child is unique and you know your child and family situations best.

Children under 3: 

They react to separation but do not understand death.

Preschool age, 3-5 years old:

  • They believe death is temporary and that person is coming back. To a young child, death is a trip, and that person is at another destination.

  • Their concerns will be literal, concrete, and most likely ego-centric (ie: thinking only about themself. NOTE: this is not selfishness. Young children cannot understand multiple points of view). Examples could be asking who will take care of them, or they might bring you a toy because that toy comforts them. 

  • Could engage in "magical thinking" which are the unrealistic and imaginative stories kids invent to help make sense of loss, saying things such as:

  •  I made Grandmom die because I wished she would go home.

  • If I draw dogs well enough, my dog will be alive again.

  • If I had acted differently, they wouldn't have gotten in that car accident.

Early Elementary, 6-8 years old:

Children in this age group have an understanding of the permanence of death, they just don't think they can die. This can be the most difficult stage for caregivers because there is a lot of curiosity around death and dying that we may not want to address. Young kids have lots of questions and ideas. Also, developmentally, they are still in an "egocentric" stage, meaning they tend to worry about how change affects them. They cannot understand multiple points of view, so it's common for kids this age to worry about who will drive them to school, make their dinner, or play with them. The real fear is safety--will they be cared for? How much will their life change?

Children in this stage may be worried or fascinated by the death of loved ones. Even though it's hard, caregivers need to openly discuss what happened, and use your best judgment, based on your child's unique personality, about how many details to share. Children require authentic, factual information to ensure they are safe, so be prepared for questions about what happens to the body at death, why death occurs, and existential questions about your faith and culture. Children in this age group may develop an interest in participating in cultural and religious ritual traditions.

Here are some examples of possible caregiver responses: 

  • "Everything dies, but most people and animals die when they are quite old and their body doesn't work anymore."  

  • "When a person dies, that means their body stops breathing, stops thinking, and stops talking and moving. They do not come back." 

    • optional: "In our religion, we believe this ( --- ) and we do this (--- ) to honor people who die. "

Older elementary and middle school/Pre-adolescence, 9-12 years old:

Children in this age group have a more adult understanding of death. They understand that death is permanent, but may be too afraid to express their feelings or talk about their loss. Again, their fear is around safety and making sure they will be protected and cared for, so expect concerns and questions about how this loss will affect them. 

Developmentally, children in this age group are curious and intellectual. They may want to know more about the process of death. Cultural and religious traditions about death and grief, even outside their heritage, may become fascinating. 

Watch out for feelings of guilt and punishment, because it's common for kids this age to internalize these feelings and not talk about them. They may think they "caused" the loss to happen, or it happened to "punish them". 

Most importantly, caregivers need to keep in mind the developmental characteristics of this age group. We all know kids this age like making jokes about inappropriate stuff and acting like "big" things don't bother them. They will do it about death, too. Even the death of their beloved dog or grandparent. As awful as this may seem, understand that older kids make jokes or act in defiance to distance themselves from death and the idea that someone else they love may die. The best way to handle this is to explain factually what happened, how you feel about it, and how the family will move on. 

Teens: 13 and up

Teenagers have a mature concept of death, permanence, and loss, but are at the developmental stage where they feel immortal. We see this with the assorted risky behaviors characteristic of the teenage years. Teens will ask deep, hard questions about death, dying, and loss and might expect to be part of religious, family, and cultural traditions. They may choose to express their grief to friends but still want and need the reassurance of family.

There are no rules to grief: your child's grief is their own. It can be very strange because there are so many emotions associated with loss. There is no timeline for grieving, and many children need to reprocess their grief many times while growing up.

Resource: Trozzi, M (1999). Talking with children about loss. Penguin Books.

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