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 Their behavior may change; may become more aggressive or withdrawn.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
Confused questions, wide range of feelings, target of painful comments
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.
disbelief, sadness, anger, relief, fear, guilt, anxiety, even curiosity
| Physical Symptoms
loss of appetite, headaches, chest pain, fatigue, insomnia, or upsetting dreams
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.
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.”
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”
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.”
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.
| 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.
| 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.
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.