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Children, just like anyone else, will grieve the loss of a loved one. But they don’t always grieve in the same way adults do. If you think the death of a loved one is difficult for you to process, imagine how overwhelmed your child must feel by it all.

What children feel following the loss of a loved one

Kids may be small, but they have big feelings, and are going to experience a whirlwind of emotions following the loss of someone they love. Some of these emotions are fairly straightforward; the type of things people typically associate with grief. Other emotions aren’t as obvious, and include complicated feelings parents might not expect.

“All at once I felt a whirlwind of emotions: shock, fear, confusion, anger, hysteria,” says Maria Maisano, who lost her father unexpectedly to a massive heart attack during her freshman year of high school. “I was lost in emotions never before conjured. …Up until that moment, my life had been like a strand of bright and colorful Christmas lights. With my father’s death, one bulb was ripped out and the entire strand went black. I was fifteen and unable to put my life back together. Life became confusing. I felt robbed of my innocence and identity. I was faced with emotions and obligations that I never had to deal with before. I constantly faced new obstacles and tasks. I forgot who I was, where I was going, and how to move on.” (Canfield et al., 2000, p. 237)

Kids may have emotional ‘storms’ where they cycle through a multitude of feelings rapidly within the span of a few minutes. They may start off feeling fearful, then progress to angry, and end feeling sad and distraught. Because they are feeling such a multitude of feelings, it’s often hard for them to put these feelings into words.

In the initial aftermath of loss, a child is most likely to be in a state of shock, since many deaths are sudden and unexpected, especially those deaths most likely to impact children directly. “When there’s a sudden death, there’s been no context,” says psychologist Therese Rando, clinical director of the Institute for the Study and Treatment of Loss. “It is a sudden, shocking, abrupt disconnection, and you cannot grasp it.” (Eversley, 2012)

Children may display an intense concern for their own continued welfare or that of their loved ones:

  • Might they become sick and die too?
  • Will the remaining parent be able to care for them?
  • Will Daddy stay sad like this?
  • Who would care for them if he died too?
  • What will happen to their home life?
  • Will anyone ever be able to take the place of their lost parent, and if so, when?
  • Is it always going to hurt this much?

These concerns are seldom expressed, but you should expect that kids are grappling with them nonetheless.

An unexpected death can leave children extremely fearful. A pillar that forms the foundation for their life has suddenly crumbled, uprooting any sense of safety, sec_rity, or stability. The world is no longer a predictable place, and the future no longer seems like something you can plan for. They are left adrift, uncertain of how to proceed with life.

“I understand people die, [but] why did you have to take my father?” -An elementary school child, in a letter addressed to God created during a grief exercise

‘Why did this happen to me?” is a common sentiment children feel. Even when the child intellectually understands that bad things can happen to anyone, the fact that it happened to them can still be difficult to process. The random and unfair nature of it all can shake their belief in a higher power, or their faith in a just and fair world. In this respect, the death of a loved one can force a reshuffling of all their core beliefs and assumptions.

Children are frequently irritated at the sight of others going about their lives as normal, when their own has been so seriously disrupted. Older kids may get angry at friends for fussing about what they consider to be trivial things. The sight of a father playing with his daughter, the symbol of a restaurant they used to visit with Mom–everything becomes a potential trigger that thrusts a child into a whirlwind of emotions, which can range from rage to despair.

The loss of a loved one also means the death of hopes and dreams for the future. Sporting events, proms, graduation day, family vacations, future wedding plans–a child had hopes and aspirations for life, all of which involved their loved one as a central figure. Now all these things must be reimagined, and it feels as though their vision of the future has been crushed.

Kids frequently feel a sense of guilt in the aftermath of loss – for fights had, things said, or all that was left unsaid. They start to pick apart everything they could have/should have/would have done, which may leave them feeling ashamed. Kids often feel self-conscious and bothered by all the attention they receive after a loss. Suddenly it’s as if they’re in the spotlight. Some may fuss over them, whereas others seem to avoid them like the plague, unsure of what to say or how to offer comfort. Those who do offer comfort frequently miss the mark, leaving kids feeling annoyed and angry, and then later, feeling guilty for these feelings too.

All in all, it’s as if someone turned up the volume on their emotional radio, yet most of what’s coming through is static–difficult to discern and hard to translate. Everything is felt more deeply, and the wide array of emotions kids experience can leave them feeling out of sorts.

Stages of grief in children

Most people have heard about the stages of grief: The idea that a person progresses from shock and denial to ultimate acceptance in an orderly, sequential process. These stages were popularized by some psychologists in the 1980s. Later research, however, revealed this idea to be flawed. While some people may indeed experience some of these stages, they are hardly a universal experience, and seldom occur in the neat and orderly fashion described.

Children are even less likely to grieve according to a particular set of stages. Their grief is more erratic and unpredictable, unlikely to follow any particular set of rules. So you can more or less disregard the idea that children will grieve according to a particular set of grief stages.

How Children Grieve

Children a can only grieve according to what their developmental stage will allow them, and the skills necessary for coping with death are far more limited in a child than in an adult. (Webb, 1993) Although they are affected by the loss just as profoundly, they must approach this pain with a greater degree of emotional immaturity. Kids also tend to have far less social capital – fewer established relationships they can draw on for support. Thus, children face a more difficult task in coping with death and loss.

Children may approach the grief process in doses they can tolerate, switching back and forth between avoidance of the issue and grieving. (Osterweis, Solomon & Green, 1984) The loss of a loved one can feel overwhelming to a child. The pain is simply bigger than they are, and too much to bear for too long at a time. Thus children tend to grieve in doses they can handle, engaging the issue when they have the strength and then distracting themselves when the pain gets too intense. They may seem fine one moment and distraught the next, with moods that swing wildly from one moment to the next, almost as if they were bipolar.

Due to an ignorance of social expectations regarding death, children may also cope in ways that are counterintuitive to what adults expect. We often forget how much of our own behavior is guided by learned associations and expectations about how to act that have been built up over a lifetime. Children have a lower comprehension level of death, mixed with a general ignorance of how other people expect they should act. Because of this, their coping processes may be more erratic, and we should expect them to behave or act in ways that differ from our own methods of coping.

Social withdrawal often occurs after a death because the pain of the loss is so intense that it makes the child unwilling or hesitant to invest emotional capital in other relationships. We’ve all heard the saying, ‘It is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.’ It’s certainly true, but during times of loss it’s quite common for survivors to question the validity of such an idea. Amidst the intense pain of grieving, it can make one wonder whether it’s all worth it. So be it consciously or subconsciously, the death of a loved one often leads a child into social withdrawal. This response is helped along by the negative emotions a child is feeling, which regardless of the cause; don’t exactly make someone jolly and sociable. Negative emotions tend to make people want to withdraw and hide in a corner, and they also turn others away, creating a self-reinforcing cycle. Amidst the aftermath of death, this combination may cause a child to view interpersonal relationships in a more negative way. (Cait, 2005)

Some psychoanalysts suggest that pre-adolescent children aren’t capable of overcoming their primitive defenses to death, such as denial and repression. Therefore, it is claimed, they aren’t able to successfully tolerate the pain of permanent separation. (Osterweis, Solomon & Green, 1984) Attachment theorists have suggested this puts them at risk for hasty and superficial processing of the loss, which leaves them vulnerable to persistent distress. While this theory is somewhat contested, and would surely fall short of being a universal developmental fact, there is likely a certain degree of truth to it.

This means that some children may not follow a linear progression in grieving, but rather endure an ongoing struggle with it that includes peaks and valleys, developmental progress and regression, with these peaks and valleys leveling out with the passage of time. This can be discouraging to parents, because it may seem as though their child moves forward and then regresses, or otherwise displays erratic behavior. One moment they may be drowning in tears in the corner, and the next acting as though they don’t care or pretending as though nothing has happened. This occurs because children may approach the grief process in doses they can tolerate, switching back and forth between avoidance of the issue and grieving. If this is their style of coping, try your best to roll with the punches.

The prior information aside, for the most part, children tend to grieve in ways that are very similar to adults. John Bowlby (1980) showed similarities in grief responses between adults and children even as young as 9 months of age. The break of an attachment bond is what causes grief, and this is something both adults and children experience in similar ways, with similar symptoms. So children are capable of experiencing grief symptoms from the moment they form such a bond with a person.

Other research has shown a common pattern of depression and anxiety symptoms among toddlers (Kranzler et al., 1990), prepubescent children (Silverman & Worden, 1992), and adolescents (Gray, 1987), that is similar to the grieving patterns in adults. So all in all, use your own intuition/struggles as a guide in talking with them, because it’s likely that they’ll be struggling to come to grips with many of the same issues associated with death that you are.

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