Children’s Reaction to Death and Grieving

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

“I miss grandpa,” said the boy out of the blue while he was eating breakfast. “He always got up early when we visited and made us pancakes.”

His mother did not know quite how to respond or why her son would bring up his grandfather now. His grandfather had passed away several months ago and her son had not mentioned him in a couple of months.

Death and dying is something everyone experiences in their lives. This can include the death of someone in the family, friends, or someone in the community. When someone dies, it can spark a range of reactions. This is one reason that people feel uncomfortable and have a difficult time knowing what to say or how to act around others who are grieving.

This discomfort is particularly true when dealing with children who have suffered a loss. Children’s reactions to a death are different than for adults. Adults tend to experience grief intensely, in a more immediate fashion, and over a short period of time. This is quite unlike children’s experience of grieving.

Children often have the ability to put grief aside for periods of time. This means they may go out and play just a short time after learning about the death of a loved one. They also tend to grieve sporadically but for a longer time than adults. The boy in the above situation was expressing grief for his grandfather several months after his death.

As children sort through their feelings and come to terms with the death, they might feel that the death did not really even occur. They may feel that the whole situation is happening to someone else. Children can also get pre-occupied with the dead person by mentioning him at various events that occur throughout the day such the boy’s observation at breakfast.

In addition, children who are grieving can exhibit their grief through their behavior. Some behavioral signs of grieving can be seen when children start to have difficulty paying attention, become overly active and struggle in school. They may also complain about being bored or tired and experience problems sleeping. Other children may become aggressive, short-tempered, and possibly destructive.

Younger children have a tendency to revert back to earlier behaviors such as wetting the bed at night or sucking their thumb. They may also want a nightlight or have their teddy bear with them when they go to bed.

Regardless of the age of grieving children, they will become more dependent on their caregivers. This means needing help with initiating and maintaining routine activities. Keeping children’s routines consistent can be one way parents can help children process their grief. Parents can also help children by being good listeners and being patient, even when children ask the same questions over and over. When children don’t feel like talking about the death, they can benefit from expressing their feelings through artwork or writing.

Children express their grief differently than adults. Parents can support their children by being there for them and allowing them outlets to express their grief. This will allow children to process the death and be able to move on.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Friday on November 13, 2015

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