The grieving process is truly a unique and deeply personal experience. The time following the loss is filled with a wide range of emotions that come and go in waves. While the ensuing days, months and years are difficult for everyone, children mourn loss in their own unique way.
Children don’t understand loss the same way adults do and how a child grieves depends on several factors, both internal and external:
- Developmental stage
- How he or she usually react to stress and emotion
- Earlier experiences of loss or death
- Relationship with the person who has died
- Family circumstances
- Amount of support around them
- How others around them are grieving
While everyone mourns differently, below are some common signs to help recognize grief in children of different age groups.
Preschool (2-6 years)
At this age, children do not understand what it means to pass away and may interpret the loss of a loved one as a type of temporary absence. According to experts at the Crossroads Hospice Charitable Foundation (CHCF), preschool-age children may struggle to understand the absence of their loved one, but still feel the pain of the separation.
When preschoolers grieve, they often:
- Ask repetitive questions surrounding loss and what happens when someone passes away.
- Experience intense or frightening dreams.
- Express irritability through tantrums.
- Show a noticeable regress in progress, such as returning to crawling or wanting a bottle.
How to Help
At this age, you can comfort children through conversation as well as action. Consider these tips from KidsHealth.org:
- Tell them you know they are sad and help them use words that describe their feelings.
- Let them know they are safe and that someone is looking after them.
- Hold their hand and comfort them with hugs.
- Be calm around them and speak gently.
- Encourage them to play, as children can often use activities like drawing and painting to help them process their loss.
Elementary School (6-9 years)
Elementary school children responding to loss often feel confused because they are still learning to understand it. They, like younger children, often think it’s temporary and might ask when the person is coming back.
When elementary-age children experience grief, they may:
- Feel as if they are to blame.
- Have irritable, defiant, aggressive or antisocial mood swings.
- Sometimes worry about who will care for them.
How to Help
At this age, children are better able to express how they feel after the loss of a loved one. Adults and children can have conversations about fears, sadness and uncertainties of loss. Consider the following as you help an elementary-age child work through their grief:
- Answer questions honestly and without the use of abstract phrases that commonly surround conversations about loss.
- Reinforce closeness, love and stability through hugs and other forms of endearment.
- Promote drawing, reading, sports or other activities that the child enjoys.
- Encourage verbal, artistic or physical expression of feelings.
Middle School (9-12 years)
Children in this age group generally understand that loss is final. Their concept of life is more concrete and they begin to form their own personal opinions. They are more aware of their surroundings and the social implications of their expressed emotions.
When children in this age group grieve, they likely:
- Begin to ask questions about what caused them to lose a loved one.
- Withdraw from previously enjoyed activities or social connections
- Experience stronger emotional reactions, such as anger, guilt or sense of rejection.
- Will talk about losing a loved one and some of the emotions they’re feeling.
- Understand loss is final.
How to Help
Consider the following tips to help adolescents grieving the loss of a loved one:
- Understand and accept the mood swings that accompany them during this time of grief.
- Allow open conversation and be honest as you discuss the loss of a loved one.
- Encourage healthy outlets that allow them to express their feelings through activities like art or sports.
High School (12-18 years)
By this age, loss is accepted as a part of life. Many teenagers may feel like they have an adult understanding of the concept of loss, but many lack the experiences, coping skills or maturity of an adult. This can result in behaviors that include:
- Bursts of aggression that leads to physical and emotional conflict.
- Withdrawal from social groups and interaction with friends.
- Sudden challenges with schoolwork and difficulties concentrating.
- Unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as drugs and alcohol.
How to Help
Consider the following items when helping teenagers cope with the loss of a loved one:
- Encourage them to talk about their feelings.
- Let them know you are always available if they need to talk or if they need guidance.
- Don’t try to control them, but allow them to grieve at their own pace and let them grow from their experiences.
More Resources to Help Others Cope With Grief
The loss of a loved one is life-altering experience—especially for a child. Subscribe to our blog for more resources on how to cope with grief after the loss of a loved one.