Because of their physical, emotional, mental and social immaturity, children do not react to loss in the same ways as adults.
Ways that children’s grief is different from adults:
The NCI’s PDQ cancer information summary about Grief, Bereavement, and Coping with Loss listed the following:
Children may seem to show grief only once in a while and for short times.
This may be because a child is not able to feel strong emotions for long periods of time. A grieving child may be sad one minute and playful the next. Often families think the child doesn’t really understand the loss or has gotten over it quickly. Usually, neither is true. Children’s minds protect them from what is too much for them to handle emotionally.
Mourning is a process that continues over years in children.
Feelings of loss may occur again and again as the child gets older. This is common at important times, such as going to camp, graduating from school, getting married, or having children.
Grieving children may not show their feelings as openly as adults.
Grieving children may throw themselves into activities instead of withdrawing or showing grief.
Children cannot think through their thoughts and feelings like adults.
Children have trouble putting their feelings about grief into words. Strong feelings of anger and fears of death or being left alone may show up in the behavior of grieving children. Children often play death games as a way of working out their feelings and worries. These games give children a safe way to express their feelings.
Grieving adults may withdraw and not talk to other people about the loss.
Children, however, often talk to the people around them (even strangers) to see how they react and to get clues for how they should respond to the loss.
Children may ask confusing questions.
For example, a child may ask, “I know grandpa died, but when will he come home?” This is a way of testing reality and making sure the story of the death has not changed.
Children who have experienced loss share three common concerns about death.
Talking about these questions with you children can help alleviate misconceptions that may go uncorrected and cause grief symptoms. Have these conversations naturally with them while you are doing something enjoyable together. Talk to them individually and in stages if necessary, but spend time talking with you child because identifying early problems can elevate the pain of trying to fix consequence that flow from them down the line.
Did I make the death happen?
Because children take statements very literally, they can often believe that something they thought or did prior to the death was the cause of the death. For example, if a irritated mother says, “You’ll be the death of me” and then she dies later, her child may come to the conclusion that she caused her mother’s death. Also, if the child has ever said or thought, “I wish you were dead.” They may also believe that the have the ability to cause someone’s death.
Is it going to happen to me?
Children often believe that only old people die. The death of another child may be very hard for a child. It brings the possibility of their own death into their mind. If the child thinks that the death may have been prevented (by either a parent or a doctor) then child may fear that he or she could also die.
Who is going to take care of me?
Because children are so dependent upon parents and other adults to take care of them, a grieving child who has lost a parent may fear the loss of the remaining parent. They may wonder who will care for them if another death occurs.
Talking honestly about the death and including the child in rituals may help the grieving child. – NCI’s summary about Grief, Bereavement, and Coping with Loss
How do you best talk about death to your child?
The NCI’s PDQ cancer information summary about Grief, Bereavement, and Coping with Loss gives the following suggestions:
Explain the death and answer questions.
Talking about death helps children learn to cope with loss. When talking about death with children, describe it simply. Each child should be told the truth using as much detail as he or she is able to understand. Answer questions in language the child can understand.
Children often worry that they will also die, or that their surviving parent will go away. They need to be told that they will be safe and taken care of.
Use the correct language.
When talking with the child about death, include the correct words, such as “cancer,” “died,” and “death.” Using other words or phrases (for example, “he passed away,” “he is sleeping,” or “we lost him”) can confuse children and cause them to misunderstand.
Include the child in planning and attending memorial ceremonies.
When a death occurs, children may feel better if they are included in planning and attending memorial ceremonies. These events help children remember the loved one. Children should not be forced to be involved in these ceremonies, but encourage them to take part when they feel comfortable doing so. Before a child attends a funeral, wake, or memorial service, give the child a full explanation of what to expect. A familiar adult or family member may help with this if the surviving parent’s grief makes him or her unable to.
Resources for helping grieving children:
- Worden JW: Children and Grief: When a Parent Dies. New York, NY: The Guilford Press, 1996.
- Doka KJ, ed.: Children Mourning, Mourning Children. Washington, DC: Hospice Foundation of America, 1995.
- Wass H, Corr CA: Childhood and Death. Washington, DC: Hemisphere Publishing Corporation, 1984.
- Corr CA, McNeil JN: Adolescence and Death. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company, 1986.
- Corr CA, Nabe CM, Corr DM: Death and Dying, Life and Living. 2nd ed., Pacific Grove: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, 1997.
- Grollman EA: Talking About Death: A Dialogue Between Parent and Child. 3rd ed., Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1990.
- Schaefer D, Lyons C: How Do We Tell the Children? Helping Children Understand and Cope When Someone Dies. New York, NY: Newmarket Press, 1988.
- Wolfelt A: Helping Children Cope with Grief. Muncie: Accelerated Development, 1983.
- Walker A: To Hell with Dying. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.
- Williams M: Velveteen Rabbit. Garden City: Doubleday, 1922.
- Viorst J: The Tenth Good Thing About Barney. New York, NY: Atheneum, 1971.
- Tiffault BW: A Quilt for Elizabeth. Omaha, NE: Centering Corporation, 1992.
- Levine JR: Forever in My Heart: a Story to Help Children Participate in Life as a Parent Dies. Burnsville, NC: Mountain Rainbow Publications, 1992.
- Knoderer K: Memory Book: a Special Way to Remember Someone You Love. Warminster, PA: Mar-Co Products, 1995.
- de Paola T: Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs. New York, NY: GP Putnam’s Sons, 1973.
National Cancer Institute: PDQ® Grief, Bereavement, and Coping With Loss. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Date last modified <03/06/2013>. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/supportivecare/bereavement/Patient. Accessed <03/25/2015>.