How Young People Grieve

Grief describes a wide range of reactions-emotional and physical- that arise when somebody suffers a significant loss in their life. Grief is a natural and appropriate response to loss. It affects people of all ages and may express itself in different ways. Grief can cause deep sadness, fierce anger, drain energy, cause upset stomach, sleep disturbances, and interrupt focus. Young people grieve like adults but they express themselves differently. Young children often grieve intermittently, in windows- one moment they seem so sad, the next they seem happy. This is natural and to be expected. The developmental age of the child and the type of death influences how the young person processes the loss.

Grief can cause deep sadness, fierce anger, drain energy, cause upset stomach, sleep disturbances, and interrupt focus”

How Young People Grieve

GRIEF ACCORDING TO AGE

| Early Elementary (4-8years)

They are starting to understand that death is permanent. The child may believe that things can change if they behave well or try hard.

Common Reactions: They may not want to be left alone.  Their feelings seem out of control. They may share emotions or hold them in.  Their behavior may change; may become more aggressive or withdrawn.  They may cope by gathering information, such as becoming an expert in the disease or condition. They may regress in behavior and also want repeated explanations of what happened. For more information on our child and adolescent counseling services, you can follow the link above.

| Late Elementary (9-11years)

Perception of Death: They know that death is permanent and irreversible. They may question their own mortality. Asking “Am I next?” They may want details of what happened after a person dies, and have vivid ideas about it.

Common Reactions: They could experience regressive behavior, including increased separation anxiety. They may have changes in behavior and moods; may want to talk about feelings, or repress them. Grades in school may suffer.

| Adolescents (12 and above)

Perception of Death: Full awareness of their own mortality, their attitude toward death is similar to adults. Possible “Survivor Guilt” if a sibling or friend has died.  

Common Reactions: May strive for independence, but be fragile inside. Mood changes are common- emotions may include anger, sorrow, & guilt. May struggle with self-esteem and the need to feel “normal” so they fit in.  They may mask grief with risky behavior, such as acting out or using drugs and alcohol.

TYPE OF DEATH 

| Prolonged Grief: Chronic Illness

Caregiver stress, conflicted feelings, unexpected emotions, anxiety, and emotional triggers.

| Sudden Death

Strong emotions, withdrawal, clinging, fear, and anxiety

| SUICIDE

Confused questions, wide range of feelings, target of painful comments

| Homicide

Powerful mixed emotions, safety worries, flashbacks, triggers, post-traumatic stress disorders.

THE LAYERS OF GRIEF

When a young person experiences the death of someone important to them, it will take time to adjust to their loss. Grief doesn’t move in a straight line, it is not one single emotion. Many emotions can be mixed up together, and may even seem to contradict each other. 

| Emotions 

disbelief, sadness, anger, relief, fear, guilt, anxiety, even curiosity

| Physical Symptoms 

loss of appetite, headaches, chest pain, fatigue, insomnia, or upsetting dreams 

| Behavior 

regressing to younger age (even bed wetting for teens), restlessness, hyperactivity, difficultly concentrating, acting out, withdrawing

3 COMMON REACTIONS TO GRIEF

| Separation Anxiety 

In simple language, the child misses the person who died. 

| Replaying the death 

The child runs the circumstances over and over in their head. Did he/she somehow cause the death? Could they have prevented it? 

| A loss of identity and meaning 

The young person has lost a motivating support in his/her life. This may result in losing interest in things that used to be important to them (school, sports, planning for the future)

HOW TO HELP

  • There is no “end point” to grief. It is a process that the person will be going through for quite a long time. In some ways that process continues for the rest of their life.  You cannot rush the process or take away their pain. 
  • There is a reason for grieving- it acknowledges that something significant in our lives is gone. 
  • What you can do is be sensitive, empathetic, and supportive so they feel understood, so that they will be able to express their emotions openly and honestly. 

There is a reason for grieving- it acknowledges that something significant in our lives is gone. Be sensitive, empathetic, and supportive so they feel understood.

EXPLAINING DEATH

Sometimes people try to shield children from death but this can confuse the child, break down trust, and hinder the grieving process. When young people have an incomplete idea of what happened they may try to fill in the blanks themselves. 

WHAT SHOULD YOU SAY?

Tell the truth and use age-appropriate words. For younger children, be clear that dying is not the same as sleeping. You might say that “death means the body stopped working; which means the person does not feel, think, or see anymore. They feel no pain.”

| Chronic Illness

“Most of the time, when we get sick, we get better again. We see a doctor or take medicine, and the illness eventually goes away. Sometimes, a person’s body gets so sick that there is nothing that can make them better.” 

| Suicide

This should be age appropriate. The child may be too young to understand details. “Daddy had an illness in his brain and he did something to make his body stop working. The brain is an organ of the body and it can get sick”

| Homicide

Avoid graphic details “A sad, terrible thing happened. Daddy was walking to his car and he was shot with a gun. The gun hurt him so badly that his body stopped working.”

ENCOURAGE OPEN CONVERSATION

If you have spiritual beliefs then now would be a good time to share those. It is important that grieving young people feel safe to express their thoughts and feelings. 

| Heed Clues

Young children can only process small bits of information at a time. Let them be in charge of what they are ready to hear. Say “I am ready to talk when you are.” Check back with them at different times. A child may ask the same question repeatedly. This is normal; they are working hard to comprehend a difficult concept. Admit to the child that talking might be painful but it is ok to talk about the person that died 

| Respect Feelings

Tell your child it is ok to express their feelings (sad, mad, lonely). Children might have reactions that seem inappropriate, like laughing or being restless. That usually means that they have reached their emotional limits. Older children and adolescents may establish distance with anger and silence. Just be patient. 

| Show Your Own Grief

Don’t lean on your children for emotional support, but share your grief journey. Tell them what you are feeling, and why you are feeling it. Don’t be afraid to show tears because this gives your child permission to cry and express their emotions. 

| Answer the Hard Questions

Children ask questions. Often the questions are deep and profound like “Why is life unfair?” Respect the questions. And realize you can answer with “I don’t know.”

GIVING COMFORT

Sometimes all a young person wants is time with family- to share memories or process what death means to them. In a high tech world remember that being human involves all the senses-and simple touch is one of them. Family rituals that re-establish a sense of order and control are also important. Address strong emotions with tenderness and love. 

| Tenderness and Reassurance

They may need to be reassured of love and safety not only with words but also hugs and kisses, cuddling, patience, and warmth. Assure the young person that you hope to live a long life, and that one death doesn’t mean others will happen. 

| Easing Guilt

Young children may think they caused the death. Older children wonder if that could have somehow kept the death from happening. Guilt is a common response. Give reassurance that they didn’t cause the death. Help them explore his/her feelings. They might also feel guilty if they have fun or feel happy. Assure them that it is okay to feel joy.

| Address Anger

Anger is a typical emotion in grieving. They may be angry with the people closest to them, the person who died, or God. This is natural; don’t be critical. Suggest the young person talk about their anger, or express it creatively (art and writing); or burn it off physically.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; 

He rescues those whose spirts are crushed.                        Psalms 34:18

 

| Funerals and Memorials

Children should be included in age appropriate ways. Tell them who will be there, and what might happen. Explain that adults might be crying and it is ok to cry. If the child is young, make sure you have arranged it so they can “take a break” to play or move around. 

| Routine and Rituals

Before or after a death, the normal home routing may be dramatically disrupted. It is important that the young person feels as safe and secure as possible. If you are surviving parent or new caregiver, be aware that structure, rules and limits may be needed. They can give the young person a sense of safety and control. 

| School Issues

Going back to school after a death can be challenging. Talk to their teacher and/or school counselor. Tell them the child is grieving and may have a hard time concentrating or doing schoolwork. Stay in close contact. Socializing with classmates may be hard. Your child has just gone through something life changing, but for fellow students, it is life as usual. For some kids this is okay, they don’t want special treatment. But others might find it upsetting.

GETTING HELP

| Books and Online Resources

Always preview a book or online site before showing your child.

| Peer Support

Find a support group or special camp. There are

many benefits: children feel less isolated; they share feelings, memories, they gain a greater sense of control,  and they trade coping ideas. 

| Find someone to talk to

Find someone you trust, a close friend or family member, or a counselor. Be honest with your feelings.

HOPE AND HEALING

What does it mean to heal from a loss and is it even possible? Healing is to become healthy or well again. When someone dear has died, the surviving child will never be the same. They will likely miss that person for the rest of their life. In fact, they may need to re-grieve their loss at multiple developmental stages. This is natural. 

Our hope is, if the death is processed and grieved in a healthy way they will find peace and smile again.

The bereaved may also have developed new strengths along their grief journey, including growth of compassion as well as deeper appreciation of time with family and friends. 

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