Children & Grief

Children & Grief
By Susan Marinac, LISW
James, a 4th grader, is withdrawn and sullen. He is having difficulty in school and got into
a fight last week for the first time.
Abby, 3, is asking the same question over and over again. “When is grandpa coming
home?” She is also very aware that her mom is crying a lot.
Sophia, 13, cannot seem to shut her mind off. She keeps thinking about the fact that she
could die, too. She keeps all of her feelings inside, however, finding them difficult to
express to friends and family who “do not understand.”
What do all of these children have in common? They have recently had a loved one die
and they are all grieving. We used to think that children behaved as “little adults” when it
came to grief, but now we understand that is not the case. Children do not grieve like
adults and depending on there developmental level children grieve quite differently.
For example, up to three years of age children do not yet understand what death is,
however, they do pick up on the adults’ feelings and non-verbal communication. And,
while a child 0-3 years of age will likely not remember the deceased person he or she is
still grieving at the time and requires a great deal of care, affection, reassurance and
Children 3-5 years of age often view death as temporary and they have many questions
about the cause of death. Children in this age group often grieve in “spurts” they may be
very sad on minute then happily playing outside the next. It is also not uncommon for a
child of this age to regress when they have suffered a loss. For example, a three year old
who has been potty trained for several weeks may begin using a diaper again. This is
normal and it will resolve over time. Children in this age group also may have “magical
thinking” that is they may feel that they somehow caused the death just by thinking about
is. Such as the case of Joey, a four year old, whose sister had Leukemia. Joey was sick of
her getting all the attention and once said out loud to his mom, “I wish she were dead.”
When his sister did die two months later Joey felt that he had caused her death and was
very upset.
A 5 -10 year old child begins to understand the finality of death and also may have a fear
of dying. The child in this age group may also feel anger at the deceased for “Leaving
them” and then feel guilty for feeling that way. Kids of this age often have very specific
questions like, “what happens to the body in the ground?” The 5-10 year old grieving
child also expresses feeling through behavior.
The 10 -18 year old can now recognize the irreversible nature of death and may be
troubled by his or her own death. Sometimes the teenage will use defense mechanisms
and act like nothing had happened or suppress their feelings. It is also not uncommon for
kids in this age group to have physical complaints that are similar to those of the
All children need to be taken seriously in their grief. They need structure, care, concern,
patience and someone to listen to them (or to just be present with them if they do not
wish to talk). Children need to know that grief, however painful, is a natural and normal
process that takes time. It may be helpful to engage in conversations about the cycle of
life & death before a loss occurs. A good way to bring this up to a small child is to talk
about the changing of the seasons. Children may also appreciate activities that help to
keep their loved ones’ memory alive such as scrap booking or writing down family
Another question that often comes up is “should my child go to the funeral?” The answer
is yes. It is far better (even for an infant) to be with family during a time of grief than to
be kept away. It is important, however, to explain to a child what they may experience at
the funeral. It is also helpful to have a specific support person there just for the child. If,
after explaining what to expect at the funeral to the child, they still seem reluctant to
attend - do not force them to go. Just answer their questions, but don’t push the issue.
Most importantly, be honest with children. Answer questions directly using proper
terminology. Do not be vague as children will “fill in the blanks” on their own often
making the story worse that it actually is. Children who experience loss often feel very
insecure. Anything you can do to provide structure to their daily routine and caring will
help to alleviate fears. There are also many local resources that you can turn to during
this very difficult time.
Local agencies assisting children in their grief:
The Phoenix Center for Grieving Children
Cornerstone of Hope
The Elizabeth Severance Prentiss Bereavement Center (Hospice of the Western Reserve)
The Busch Funeral and Crematory Services website Resource section provides
comprehensive information regarding bereavement resources in Northeast Ohio.
Please visit our site at
Or contact [email protected]
Save the date:
Fall Conference 2005. Name of speaker. Sponsorship opportunities available.