Helping children cope with loss – Part 1: Childhood grief

How children understand death and process grief.

The process of grieving is different and unique for every child.
The process of grieving is different and unique for every child.

In our finite world, endings through death or loss are unavoidable. With that loss comes grief. Grief is not a singular event with a set end date or a standard set of procedures. Grief is a normal process of dealing with loss. Loss does not only refer to situations of death, instead it can refer to any situation where someone loses a person, thing or idea.

Children experience grief in times of lost relationships such as a divorce, tragedies such as war, or even loss of things, like imprisonment of a parent, moving to a new place or even changes in the structure of their family. Just as grief reveals itself differently for adults, the process of grieving will be different and unique to each child experiencing it.

Myths about grief

There are, in fact, a lot of misconceptions about how children manage loss or express their grief. Seven myths of childhood grief are identified in “Loss and Grief in Young Children” by Paddy Favazza and Leslie Munson.

  1. An active, playing child is not a grieving child. Children may not have the words or social emotional skills to express all of the complicated feelings associated with grieving. Children learn and express themselves through play, so allowing them to be active is a helpful way to help them through this process without any added pressure.
  2. The experience of grief and mourning occurs in an orderly fashion. The process of grief is messy and chaotic for each individual who experiences it. Children might appear perfectly normal one day and extremely emotional the next. That fluctuation is normal.
  3. Adults should avoid topics that cause a child to cry. Just like adults, children need the opportunity to process their emotional reactions to loss and express them in healthy ways. Avoiding topics that might make children sad deprives them of their opportunity to practice importation social-emotional skills that aid in healing.
  4. Children need to “get over it” and move on. This statement is no less true for adults than it is for children. The process of “getting over” death is called grief and it is just that, a process. It will take however long it takes. Children should not be pressured to process death, but allowed to move through their healing process in their own time.
  5. Children are better off not attending funerals and memorials. Whether or not children attend funerals or memorials is a personal decision that depends on the preferences of the adult and the developmental capabilities of the child. While attending memorial services may be very difficult or confusing, it can help children process the death and can be a therapeutic experience for children.
  6. The grief of an adult does not impact a bereaved child. Children are very perceptive. They can pick up on the emotional state of the adults around them, including the adult’s own grief process. Being open about your own feelings helps validate your child’s feelings and helps them understand what they are going through is normal.
  7. Parents and educators are always prepared and qualified to give explanations and clarifications regarding loss and grief. It’s OK to not feel prepared to help a child grieve. No one has all the answers or the perfect response to every situation. It’s OK to ask questions or seek support.

Common symptoms of childhood grief

While each child will manage grief in their own, unique way, there are common ways children exhibit their grief physically, emotionally, cognitively and socially. According to the authors of “Coping with grief: Guidelines and resources for assisting children,” common symptoms include:

  • Physical. Children may exhibit crying, fidgeting, fighting, tantrums, lacking energy, being hyperactive, nightmares, loss of appetite, overeating, stomachaches, headaches, being clingy and insecure, toileting accidents or thumb sucking.
  • Emotional. Children may feel sad, depressed, hopeless, helpless, shocked, overwhelmed, resentful, numb, relieved, guilty, angry, moody, embarrassed, anxious or hypersensitive.
  • Cognitive. Grieving children may engage in behaviors such as avoidance, denial, distractibility, inattentiveness, confusion, preoccupation with death or fantasy, or behaviors that question their beliefs.
  • Social. Children may appear withdrawn, isolated, argumentative, oppositional, attention-seeking or rebellious.

Developmental understanding of death

As children grow and mature, so does their understanding of death or loss. In “Raising our children to be resilient: A guide to helping children cope with trauma in today’s world,” Linda Goldman defines how children’s concept of death develops.

  • Pre-operational stage (ages 2-7). Children during this stage deal with death using magical thinking, their self-focus or egocentricity and feelings of causality. So when dealing with death, these children may blame themselves for doing something, even if it is very illogical, that caused the death of a loved one or another loss.
  • Concrete operations stage (ages 7-12). Children experience a lot of curiosity about death during this stage and are interested in learning new and realistic information about the concept of death. They may express their own thoughts and fears about death and they begin to really understand the permanency of death.
  • Prepositional operations (ages 13 and older). Children in this stage have a more mature concept of death and its finality, but might see it as removed from themselves or something they cannot control. Because adolescents are spending so much energy focusing on forming their own individual identities, they might deny the idea the possibility of their own deaths.

No matter how a child understands loss or what symptoms of grief they show, dealing with loss is difficult and tricky. But with the ongoing attention, support and encouragement of loving adults, children can begin working through these emotions and process loss in a way that is healthy and helpful.

Check out “Helping children through grief and loss” and “Discussing death and dying with preschoolers” from Michigan State University Extension for more information.

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.


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