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How Children Grieve, part 2: What is Grief? 

Updated: Apr 18

Grief is intense heartbreak, or the reaction, such as the sorrow, anger, sadness, blame, emptiness, and suffering we experience after a loss. Importantly, grief is intensely personal and does not end. We never go back to "the way it was before". Instead, we eventually learn to adapt to the loss. Mourning is the process that follows the loss and coming to terms with it.

For kids, grief is more complicated. In America, we are not prepared to deal with children's grief, and yet children are not immune to death, loss, and suffering. To make it more challenging, each developmental stage of childhood understands the concept of death and loss differently. 

As children grow and mature, so does their understanding of death and loss.

For example, a toddler cannot fathom what it means for a person or animal to die, to stop existing, to be no more, because 3-year-olds have a limited understanding of loss. Meanwhile, their 7-year-old sibling will obsess over what it means to die, where souls go, and what actually happens to the body. 

Maria Trozzi wrote the consummate book about kids and grief, "Talking with Children about Loss", in 1999. In it, she explains what we know about children and grief: 

  • Children under the age of 3 generally do not understand death. 

  • Children express grief differently than adults.

  • Children grieve in spurts.

Most children first experience death and loss with grandparents or pets. Sometimes, we get off easy with a goldfish. Here today, gone tomorrow. It's hard to talk about the permanence of death and loss leaning over the toilet waving goodbye to a dead fish. Especially when you can go to the store and get another one that looks just like it. 

At some point, children may see their grandparents old and sick, maybe sleeping in a hospital bed, or witness their dog being sick and being rushed to the vet. They see the adults in their lives acting differently- afraid, yelling, or crying. Their schedules get changed last minute, and their daily structure is gone. Now Aunt Susan is picking them up from school, and tomorrow they have to skip soccer practice. And then, one day, the kids come home from school to find their pet is gone or are told their grandparent "went to sleep", "passed on", or "went home to Jesus". Their parents might be crying, quietly staring at the wall, or on the phone more. There's a fridge full of strange casseroles, and bedtimes are forgotten. It's a confusing, scary time. 

Grief is not just reserved for the death of our loved ones. Kids feel grief, that same intense heartbreak and sorrow, from a wide variety of sources. Having a friend move away, divorce, a new sibling, starting a new school, not making or being cut from the team, giving away a pet, a lost opportunity, or missing a milestone (like missing prom or graduation) can all cause the deep, intense feeling of grief. Because there are no rules to grief, and because grief is personal, it's easy to miss or minimize these feelings. "It could be worse!" we say. Well-meaning friends tell us that "kids are resilient, they bounce back!". When actually, the kids are grieving. 

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