Last Updated on March 2, 2022 by Sarah Gallagher
If you’ve ever been through grief, you’ll know that it’s a harrowing process that literally pulls the rug out from you. Your life has fundamentally changed in an instant, bringing huge feelings of loss, confusion, and shock which eventually morph into deep mourning. However, children don’t seem fazed at all by a death. Whereas you’re trying to find the energy to get out of bed, a young child will go about they regular day-to-day like nothing has happened. While you could interpret their non-reactions as being unaffected by death, it’s important to realize that children are deeply affected by a death. Children grieve differently than adults.
Please note that this post deals specifically with younger children under 10 years-old. Older children have a much deeper understanding of death, and their reactions will closely align with how adults grieve, though with their own variances depending on their age.
Children live moment-by-moment. They have to. That’s how they function in their ever changing world. They are mentally and emotionally developing by the hour. Their brains aren’t developed enough to plan into the future, or hang onto past memories. They are creatures of the “now”. Which will now include how they process grief.
“Kids often grieve in spurts because they can’t seem to tolerate grief for long periods of time,” says Susan Thomas, LCSW-R, FT, program director for the Center for H.O.P.E. at Cohen’s Children’s Medical Center of New York. Adults, she explains, “have one foot in grief and one foot on the outside, but kids jump in and out of grief.”
For anyone that has witnessed the rapid transformation of happy child into rampaging Godzilla, this makes perfect sense. Our young Godzilla needs to get their big feelings out, and once acknowledged, switches back to happy child almost instantly. How they process their grief will be the same, only they can’t identify this new feeling, and it can be difficult for adults to interpret what their child is trying to tell them, let alone how to manage it. Which is exactly why I needed to write this post, to help adults understand how children grieve differently, and how to help them.
Do babies know when someone dies? Please, don’t make the mistake of thinking that infants or toddlers aren’t affected. They absolutely are. They are very much aware that a constant figure in their lives are not there anymore, and will feel that separation, even if they can’t mentally comprehend it. They are also acutely aware of the reactions of the adults around them, especially their caretakers.
Taking cues from adults
Our kids look up to us. From the youngest age, they are constantly mimicking us. Whether it be rocking their “babies” to sleep, or trying to help us mow the lawn, they try to copy us adults to show them what to do. This also applies to how they mimic our grief.
“Adults might assume that children are better off not thinking about or talking about the person who died. They might remove pictures or avoid talking about the deceased in the presence of children,” Andy McNiel, MA, CEO of the National Alliance for Grieving Children says. In response, the children will retreat in silence.
It’s so very important that your children see your sadness, because it allows them to show their sadness too. It’s so very important that you leave the lines of communication open, but don’t force them to talk. Let them know that whatever they are feeling is okay. This means that when they act out, you stay calm and open, because they need to know that they are in a safe place.
Kids are extremely egocentric. If something happens, it must be because of something they did. Sometimes, kids will crumble because they believe that their parent died because they misbehaved. Or if they had done something differently, their parent might still be alive. This is called Magical Thinking.
It also shows up as a wish that their parent is going to come home. That if they believe hard enough, their parent will magically come back from the dead. Honestly, this is going to be harder on you. They are trying to magically transform their reality, but you know the truth. It’s important that you gently remind them that their daddy or mommy can’t return to their body again, but that they will always be a part of them.
Lots of reassurance
Children who are grieving will constantly need reminders that they are okay. They might wonder if they are going to die too. You will need to explain that yes, everyone will eventually die, but there is no reason to believe that it will happen right now. They are young and healthy, with caretakers who are also alive and healthy, and they are safe. Reassurance is key.
Tell the truth
Your kids are going to have a lot of questions. Remember how open communication is key? When they come back with specific questions, and they will because they are trying to understand, you need to tell them the truth. You need to use clear language – no euphemisms. Don’t say daddy is sleeping, because then they will be afraid to go to sleep. Tell the truth – their daddy’s body got sick and died. There’s no need for gruesome details.
Grief is a lifelong process
Children can’t come to terms with death until their brains have developed enough to grapple with such concepts, which isn’t until their mid-20’s. Until then, their going to be processing their loss their entire lives. Grief can reappear at times as they age.
“After the death of a significant person in their lives, children begin a process of adapting to that person’s absence,” McNiel says. Grief, he explains, is the normal consequence of acknowledging that their loved one no longer physically exists. “Their relationship with the deceased person moves from one of physical reality to one of memories and continuing bonds.”
Your child will grieve at times in their development when the absence of their parent is this wide open hole. It could be at their first school recital. At birthday parties when other kids have both parents there, but they don’t. When the kids at school ask where their missing parent is, and they have to explain, yet again, that they died, and dealing with the shock of both the kid and their parents.
Finding their support system
Being a victim of death is a very lonely situation, especially for kids. They are constantly aware of their peers who have two parents. They see one parent dropping them off at school, with another picking them up. Whenever a classmate asks about where their other parent is, they have to tell them matter-of-fact fully anticipating their questions. It’s a very lonely world.
They deeply benefit from connecting to other kids who have experienced a similar situation. If they have a community of others who have a dead parent, and really get how they feel, it makes them feel like their not the only one.
Here’s the good news
Overall, kids who have lost a parent to death grow up to be more compassionate towards others. They understand sadness from losing someone more than most kids. They will try to help others who are sad, and don’t understand why people fight. They will value family and friends more. They’ll try to make the world a better place, because they know the sadness of being left alone.
How can you help?
It’s really, really easy to turn every bad reaction your kids have into an “oh, he’s mourning” moment. Because, well, they ARE mourning. They ARE grieving. But they are ALSO growing up as normal kids with normal problems that happen with life.
So….how can you tell the difference between reacting to death, and reacting to life’s problems?
To start with, you calm down and stop making everything about your dead spouse. Sure, this may not have happened if they were still around, but you can’t know that.
What you CAN do is educate yourself about the typical ways that kids grieve based on their age group, and see if your son or daughter associates with any of these signs. By understanding how they are grieving, you have a baseline to know how to help.
I’ve created a handbook that outlines the typical signs of grief, based on their age. You can get a PWYC copy of it here.
Research has shown that one of the top indicators of how well children will do after the death of a significant person in their life is directly related to the type of relationship they have with the surviving adult(s) in their lives and how well these adults are able to cope with their own grief.
So, be aware of your own path. You have so much to give to your children, and I know you can help them.
If you’re struggling with finding your next step, I can help.