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Development and Grief


Children do not grieve like adults. They are likely to grieve "in pieces," devastated one minute and seemingly fine the next. The emotions of grief can be unfamiliar and overwhelming to children, and they may lack the verbal skills to express what they are feeling. Therefore, a child’s grief will often be seen in his/her behavior and play activities. Children can be expected to understand the loss differently at different developmental stages, and therefore it is normal for a child’s grief reaction to appear to come and go over a period of years. Finally, grieving children typically live in a grieving home and this impacts their grief. Children may not express their grief while the adults are acutely grieving but rather may wait until their lives feel stable once again before reacting to the death.

Under Age Two

Infants and young toddlers will certainly notice a change in caregivers, whether that change is because one has died or the caregivers are grieving. Since this age group uses behavior to communicate, we should expect to see behavioral changes in infants and young toddlers impacted by grief.One would expect that the child would be more fussy and demanding, or perhaps even the opposite -- withdrawn. Toddlers may regress, reverting back to "babyish" behaviors they had outgrown.

2 to 5 years

I was once at the hospital with a family who was saying good-bye to their dying child. Their younger daughter was with them, and infuriating the parents with her energetic three year old behavior. The parents could not understand how their daughter could behave in such a disrespectful way when her sister was dying; the parents, understandably, could not see how this little person’s "wild" behavior was a reaction to all the sadness and disruption around her. I did the best thing I could at the time, which was to take the three year old on a walk around the hospital to give them all a break.

swingsChildren in this age group see death as something reversible - as if the dead person has just gone out for milk and will be back at anytime. Therefore, they tend to react more to the grief around them than to the death. This may result in adults believing that the child is not grieving but the reality is that this age does not view dying with any finality and so death does not carry the same impact as it does for an adult.

Remember that children communicate most with their behavior/play and we might see regression (backwards steps in behavior), tantrums, clinging and demanding behavior, overly energetic behavior, and/or just a child who is not herself.

6 to 12 years

One six year old boy I was working with nonchalantly told me that his brother lived in the dirt with Jesus. I had to think about this for a minute to figure out what he meant - he knew his brother was buried at the cemetery, and everyone kept telling him that his brother was with Jesus - so he figured out all by himself that Jesus must also be in the dirt at the cemetery!

School-age children are very literal and extremely curious about death, accidents, illness, and other matters that the adults might prefer not to revisit. There is a growing awareness of the permanency of death, but this age group does not typically feel the same impact of a death that an adult does because they have a different understanding of it.

Think about it - as adults we are devastated by death because we know the person is not coming back. But children do not have that understanding, and so their reactions make perfect sense given that they are used to adults coming and going, and death is nothing more than that for a younger child. The grief of adults is what is so very hard on a child, and one nine year old boy summed it nicely when he shared, "my parents cry all the time and it is so annoying".

School-age is a developmental period when we can expect grieving children to worry about safety and whether someone else will die, and show other fears and anxieties. The grief of a school-age child is definitely on-off again, and they will be hysterically sobbing one minute and off to play the very next; this is normal.

Teenagers

Grief is very challenging for teenagers - well, most things are very challenging for teenagers! This is already a time of discovery and crisis, and adding grief to it really puts a strain on a difficult period of development.

Teens have a growing understanding that death happens to everyone and that it is permanent. Their increasing ability to think abstractly means they will grapple with difficult existential questions/challenges that grief usually brings up (i.e., "What is the meaning of life? What happens after death?"). It is normal for death and grief to cause teens to question their psychological and spiritual beliefs.

A difficulty with grief and teens is that this is a developmental period where most of us are pulling away from family and forming new support systems - and so teens do not always have the best grief support systems in place. They also have a strong desire not to be different, and grief makes a teen feel different so it is normal for them to try and hide it, especially from peers.

Like younger children, teenagers typically express their grief with behavior and less with words, although older teens certainly have the verbal skills to share more about their grief. It is normal for grieving teens to become withdrawn, have difficulties with relationships, experience performance decline at school, and lack motivation in general.

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