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How and When Do Children Grieve?
Valerie Lambert, LCSW, Bradley Center Board Member

I’m often asked, “How old do children have to be before they can grieve?” The simple answer is, “any age.” While a baby or small child may not understand that a death has occurred, or what that means, even tiny ones sense that something is different, and this can be stressful for them. Changes in caregivers, excitement or sadness from those around them, new or different people can all be signals to infants that something is wrong. During these times, a baby or small child may become irritable or have changes in sleep or eating patterns. These can be signals that a baby or small child is in need of more attention and soothing.

As children mature, they begin to understand more about death and what that means. A three- to six-year-old is likely to think death is reversible. They may worry if someone important in their life dies that others will too. They may also wonder if they caused the death, or try to “fix it.” Give them opportunities to ask questions, and answer honestly but simply. Don’t use euphemisms. Telling a child that “grandma just went to sleep” is likely to create the fear that going to sleep may lead to death. “God wanted him in Heaven because he was so good,” is not a helpful message either!

Six- to nine-year-old’s usually understand that death is final, but may still believe that the dead person will come back. They may worry that death or a fatal illness is contagious. They may need reassurance that their angry or upset thoughts, or their behavior did not cause the death (for instance: “Mom wanted me to make my bed and I got mad, so she died.”)

A nine- to twelve-year-old has a better understanding of the finality of death. They are starting to understand their own mortality and vulnerability. They are also more likely to understand the financial and social impacts that a death can have on their family. This can cause additional worry, and they may try to take on adult roles in an attempt to help.

Teenagers have a good understanding of what death is, but may feel that the death of a family member sets them apart as different. They may feel that they need to take over adult roles, or may want to act as if nothing has happened. While a teen may need to step up and take on more responsibility, remember that they are still teenagers, and cannot become adults overnight.

Suggestions to Help a Grieving Child

A death in the family can be overwhelming for anyone, and it can take a great deal of energy for bereaved adults just to get through the day. It is important to be aware that children in the family will also be grieving. If you are grieving, it is vital that you care for yourself, but your children need you, too. Here are some suggestions to help find a balance and manage both during this challenging time:

1. Accept help from friends or neighbors. People often feel helpless when someone they care about is hurting, and if you can delegate something to them, they are likely to appreciate the opportunity. Ask an adult who already knows your children to be an extra support to them at this time. While this may seem most important during the funeral or first few weeks after a death, you and your children will likely need support for many weeks or months.

2. Provide opportunities for children to talk, to vent feelings, to be angry or sad or whatever they are feeling. Recognize that if a child is acting as if nothing is wrong, that may be what he/she needs for the moment. He or she is not being heartless or uncaring. Again, if you have friends, family members or neighbors who want to help, let them provide a safe place for a child to ask questions, express feelings, and find distractions.

3. Reassure your children that it is normal to have a variety of feelings, and that they may find times when they are not sad, and that’s all right, too. Don’t try to hide your tears. Instead, let the children know that tears are a normal response to the situation and that if they want to cry you will be accepting and supportive to them. This will help keep the door to communication open.

4. Let your children know that you are still an adult they can rely on, and that they don’t need to make you feel better.

5. Reassure children that they will be cared for. Questions like “Who will take care of me?”, “How will I get to soccer?” or “Who will drive the carpool now?” are common. Again, if you can let other adults help, please do. You can’t take care of your children if you don’t take care of yourself.

6. Normalize your children’s feelings as well as your own. It is not uncommon to feel anger at either the person who died or at God (or both), to be sad, to laugh about memories or at a funny TV show (this is not disrespectful), to cry, to not cry, etc.