Children do grieve their losses. You may wonder how or what they feel as you watch them play or sleep soundly after a tragedy. But don’t move on too quickly. For young hearts and minds, the process often happens very differently from the grown-ups in charge because children don’t grieve like adults. Our outward reactions and verbal responses can have little in common with the silent, distracted, or magical expressions of children.
Young people are developing and changeable. Their emotions are often tucked inside as they try to work through their limited understanding. Concepts like death, deprivation, bereavement, and permanence take time to parse out. Sometimes the feelings and emotions are too big for kids to manage on their own. Sometimes, it will take them years to work through it all.
And sometimes, adults can make the mistake of thinking that the kids are alright because their grief seems invisible or kids are “resilient” and somehow incapable of grasping the depth of the loss.
Grieving Children Need Time and Respect from Grown-Ups
First and foremost, children need to
- process the loss of a loved one
- cope with the changes the loss creates
It’s important to recognize that children need to work through grief on their own terms, in their own way. Do they hurt on the inside but feel worried about adding to the pain of the grown-ups around them? Are they overwhelmed and unsure of how to verbalize their thoughts? Is the child in need of a break from all the loss-related change and upset?
It is hard to know if you don’t understand some key things about child grief. Thus, you must embrace several key ideas regarding their expression of loss. With these things in mind, you can become:
- a reliable source of comfort,
- a partner in their recovery, and
- a springboard in their forward movement.
Key Ways that Children Don’t Grieve Like Adults
Sometimes Grief is Internal and Quiet…Sometimes it Looks Like Recess
Children need time to process new information. How they do so, isn’t always through lots of questions and information gathering. Children often accept a situation and process it through their current life lens. That view may be cloudy, incomplete, or otherwise distorted, but it is theirs.
For a while, you may see children just sitting quietly or pulling away with few words or tears. Sometimes they may seem to forget their grief and play joyfully in the park. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the wheels aren’t spinning in their brains or that loss isn’t impacting them.
Age Matters When it Comes to Grief
Grief might look very different in the mind and body of a 4-year-old. They will not think of death like a 7-year-old. The former may regress into toddler behavior and bewetting while the latter might become super curious about death or complain of recurring physical aches and pains.
It’s important to pay attention to the age of a child coping with loss and manage your expectations. Patience is key. The idea that grief must come with a timeline is unnecessary pressure on both kids and adults.
Grief Goes Round and Round
Grief is often described as wave-like among adults. It washes over us in varying degrees at various times. For a child, it might be better described as a cyclical experience. Grief gets experienced repeatedly as they develop and their young minds apply newfound knowledge and deepened understanding to their loss. Children don’t grieve like adults but the process is similar.
Children Face Certain Bereavement Barriers
It is important to remember too that, children aren’t in control of much when it comes to grief. The acceptance and processing of loss done by adults are sometimes not available to children because well-meaning grown-ups get in the way. In fact, grown-ups may actively try to temper a child’s hurt and worry with soft, inaccurate language and vague explanations.
This can confuse the grieving process leading to some inaccurate, unhelpful, or even scary assumptions about the loss. Children need clarity and specific, age-appropriate language. This helps them integrate their new grief state productively.
Lack of Safety and Loss Are Deeply Connected
Children need to feel safe. Loss can rattle their worlds. They may be very reactive or very withdrawn if they don’t know they are safe to express their feelings. Grown-ups know that the grief season will come and go. Children must be reassured and encouraged to share and accept comfort, even if that security is offered by someone new or in new ways.
Therapy Can Help
Children do mourn. Sometimes it looks like tantrums and tears. Sometimes it looks like a playground-escape and whimsical ideas about a lost loved one’s whereabouts. Regardless, they need the adults in their lives to understand and guide them.
When we realize we don’t need to prod them toward adult expression, we’re all able to accept and appreciate the lessons that come with letting go.
Still, you might need support too. It is important to acknowledge that helping yourself and helping your child through loss at the same time isn’t easy. Therefore, it may be wise, to seek out further help from a professional. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a therapist. Encourage your child to participate in child counseling too. We’re here for you.