Dependent on their age, children will have different understandings of grief and loss. Children who are developmentally more advanced than others are more likely to suffer grief reactions that correspond to their level of development.
It is important to keep these developmental areas in mind when giving advice to parents dealing with grieving children.
Birth to 6 months
A baby of this age may experience feelings of separation or abandonment. They are aware the person is missing and this can result in anxiety or distress. This is heighted if it is the baby’s primary care giver that is missing. If it is the baby’s mother that is grieving a loss, the baby can pick up on these feelings too.
6 months to 2 years
If it is the care giver who has died, the baby will protest at their absence by crying and angry tears. They may become withdrawn or lose their interest in toys and feeding. More mature toddlers may start actively seeking the deceased trying to find them.
2 to 5 years
Children at this age do not realise that death is irreversible or the finality of it. For example, a four year old may be sad that their sibling has died but then ask when they are coming home. They may still expect to see them alive and well in the future. Due to the limited cognitive understanding of children at this age, they may demonstrate less of a reaction than an older child. They may go back to playing as normal straight after being told.
Children become more confused if told someone is simply sleeping or gone as it may result in them becoming fearful of falling asleep or seeing other people sleeping. At this age they may develop omnipotence (magical thinking). A belief that their actions, words or thoughts are somehow directly responsible for their loved ones death (this can be experienced by other age groups too).
5 to 10 years
Children have acquired a wider understanding of death and what it entails. They begin to understand the finality of death and that the person who has died will not return and that life functions have stopped.
By the age of 7, children usually accept that death is inevitable and that all people eventually will die. This can result in anxieties about imminent deaths of loved ones. As such it is important that children have the details of death, funerals and burial processes explained to them as clearly and honestly as possible. Some will want to go into more detail than others.
Children can empathise and show compassion for peers that have been bereaved. They also may copy the coping mechanisms shown by bereaved adults and may try and disguise their emotions.
It is important to encourage them to show their emotions and express their feelings.
It is essential to explain to children that it is not their fault in any way.