Ages and Developmental Stages of Grieving Children and
Every child is different and their grief journey
is unique. Each child responds to loss cognitively, emotionally, spiritually and physically in their own way. However
use this chart as a general guide.
Infants: Even infants can sense when something is disrupted in their world. Having a grief stricken caretaker or having
people around him or her who are grieving can be enough to affect them. Although they can't verbalize their
grief, they often react by refusing to nap, increased night wakings, not eating well, irritability, excessive
crying, increased need to be held and comforted, increased separation anxiety and an overall change in their behavior.
Always rule out any possible illness with the doctor, but if the baby has a clean bill of health, it may be safe to assume
that he or she is reacting to grief.
Giving the infant extra comfort,
by holding him or her more, perhaps in a baby sling or a front pack or back pack, even around the house. Rocking a baby can
help to calm him, as well as playing calming music softly in the background. Try to feed him in a quiet place and not have too
many distractions. Remember that he or she needs to feel secure and safe more now than ever. Talking in a softer voice is
also helpful. The best thing is to take care of the caretaker and help the caretaker to feel supported and attended to so
he or she can care for the infant.
Children this age are egocentric naturally. They
don't have the cognitive ability to understand death. They think death is reversible, not permanent. "I know Daddy died.
Will he be at my birthday party next weekend?" A 3 year old at a wake seeing his grandpa in a casket told
him to "wake up now, that is enough sleep."
ask a lot of questions over and over again. Be patient and give factual information. No need for too many details.These
children may regress, change their eating and sleeping patterns, wet their bed, be irritable and confused.
What helps? They need: short, honest interactions,
comfort, reassurance, nurturing and consistent routine.
4-7 years old:
fantasy thinking and wishing. Concerns about guilt at this age. Death still seen as reversible by many. Feel
responsible because of wishes and thoughts. "It's my fault she died. I was mad at her and wished she would go away".
Great book : I Know I Made it Happen. Questions about how, why. May act as if nothing happened. There
may be general distress and confusion.
helps? Provide them with terms for some of their feelings such as numb, grief, sadness. Death play is normal
and helps children integrate the reality of the death. You can join in the play and offer guidance.
Self confidence develops. Developing cognitive ability and logical thinking begins.
Death is seen as a punishment. Fear of bodily harm and mutilation. Beginning to see death as final. They may ask
specific questions. They want detail. Want to know the "right" way to respond. Starting to have the ability
to mourn and understand mourning. Express grief through play. May "hang back" socially and scholastically.
May see acting out, sleep and appetite disturbance. Concern with body. May have desire to "join"the
one who died.
Encourage expression of feelings. Answer questions. Explain options and allow for choices. Be available but allow
alone time. Give physical outlets. TALK ABOUT IT! Children need permission to concentrate on mourning before
they can be expected to forge ahead with the rest of their lives. Give them time. Offer "venting" alternatives.
Support groups helpful.
(12 and up):
They understand death cognitively, but
are only beginning to grapple with it spiritually. May protest the loss by acting out and/or withdrawing. May
feel life has been unfair to them, and act angry. May act out a search for meaning. May test own mortality. Problem
solving and abstract thinking period. "Adult" approach. Work at making sense of teachings. Depression,
regression common. More often willing to talk to people outside of family and seek peer support. Depression and anger common.
Anger toward parents. Non-compliance. Rejection of former teaching. Role confusion, acting out.
What helps?: Encourage verbalization.
Do not take control! Encourage self motivation. Listen! Be available. Do not attempt to take their grief away.
Tolerate some acting out behaviors as long as teen or other isn't being hurt. Withdrawal is normal, in the short term (Long
term withdrawal is a sign he/she may need extra help). A teen's normal egocentrism can cause him to focus exclusively
on the effect the death had on him and his future. After he has had time to explore this, encourage him to consider
the death's impact on the larger social group: family, friends, etc. Teens begin to really explore "why" questions
about life and death. Encourage search for meaning unless it may harm the teen or others.