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  • bethhewett

Children’s Love, Children’s Grief

When a family death occurs or when the family suffers a loss such as a health crisis or moving from one home to another, the children may grieve—even when they don’t talk about it and even when it seems like the loss isn’t their business, as with a parent’s job loss or career change.


The fact is that when children are old enough to love, they are old enough to grieve. That means a very young infant who recognizes its mother and father can grieve their death or removal from the home (for example, divorce or frequent travel and remote work). Infants who wail when they’re physically away from their parents aren’t just expressing that they need comfort. Their parents, who are out of sight, are GONE, seemingly permanently. Even when infants learn object permanence, they may feel bereft when their parents aren’t nearby. In the awful event that parent/s die, infants grieve their loss. This grief isn’t something that’s finished just because another caregiver takes over. Even more, their grief will reemerge throughout their lives.


Toddlers, young children, teenagers, and young adults: it doesn’t really matter their age: they can and do grieve when the ones they love either die or leave permanently. At these different developmental ages, there are varying ways to work with their grief. They need age-appropriate ways to express their grief, which is called mourning, and multiple opportunities to do so. 


When confronted with the death of loved ones, children may find themselves experiencing strong feelings that they don’t know how to handle. For example, like the adults around them, children often feel deep sadness at the death of a grandparent, their parent’s parent. While such sadness can be a powerful emotion for anyone, most likely those people around the children will understand this loss and be able to explain it. Often, unless the children have been raised by the grandparent and have lost a true parent in him or her, they may be able to see the grandparent’s death as part of life’s natural progression—it’s expected that older people will die before younger ones do. 


However, when the deceased is a child’s parent, sibling, or friend, feelings of anger, guilt, and even terror may more readily accompany the sadness. In fact, as frightening and unbalancing as a parent’s death can be, the death of a sibling (or a friend or school mate) can be especially terrifying since it presents the painful reality that if another child can die, so can they, the children left behind. In such cases, children are confronted with their own mortality earlier than we might want for them.


Here are some age-appropriate mourning activities that can help grieving children begin mourning in healthy ways. 


Infants and toddlers*


Infants and toddlers are too young to know intellectually what is happening in the case of a loved one’s death. Emotionally, however, they can experience such feelings as grief, sadness, fear, and anger. They often pick up on such feelings as caregivers express and transmit them. Infants and toddlers are preverbal in that they typically don’t have the words to express what they’re feeling. Parents who are grieving may transmit that grief, leading to inconsolable infants and toddlers. 


Children of this age need steady, loving caregivers to meet their physical and emotional needs during times of grief. When the situation becomes too intense for them, parents who are bereaved for any reason can help themselves and their babies by asking people that the little ones know and trust to babysit and nurture them. 


Toddlers may need opportunities to express challenging emotions through banging pots and drums or through a caregiver’s kind approach to tantrums. Beyond such needs, expose infants and toddlers to as little disruption to their routines as possible. 


Preschool-aged children


Preschool children are typically open to new ideas and excited by life; they are learning to take initiative. If they have been raised to believe in God, for example, they tend to use faith intuitively and enthusiastically. However, they project onto God (and any other powerful being) the good and the bad attributes of their own parents or primary caregivers. For example, if a parent is often angry, then their experience of God may be that of an angry, powerful being. Similarly, their experience of loving kindness and reasonable boundaries will suggest to them a God with these attributes.

 

While they are verbal, preschool children are still very young in many areas of development. Under stress, they readily regress to expressing their fears and sadness with crying, screaming, lashing out, and even biting or hitting. At this age, children also engage in a lot of magical thinking, which may lead them to see the death or other loss of a loved one as a result of their own anger, bad behavior, or unpleasant thoughts. Death leads to particular problems. For example, preschool children typically don’t understand death as an irreversible event and may ask questions like, “When will Grandpa wake up?” or “When will Lizzie come home?”


Children of this age need focused support when grieving. Give them specific opportunities to express their grief in age-appropriate ways like drawing and coloring a picture for the deceased and being allowed to place it in the casket or tape it to a wall or refrigerator for other mourners to share. Suggest they pick flowers to give to the deceased or to other grieving family members. 


Children of this age certainly can go to wakes, funerals, or memorial services for a short period and during their normal waking hours. If they need to attend these services for the entire time, bring a babysitter they know and trust. Because other family members need their own time to express their grief, paying an outside caregiver may be the best option. However, when they are taken to a wake or funeral, never force children to go near the casket or to kiss the deceased if they don’t want to be there. 


Other helpful mourning activities for preschool children include


  • Drawing or coloring their feelings in a picture that they can keep (much like an older child might keep a journal)

  • Picking flowers for the loved one’s family

  • Hearing stories about their loved one’s delight in them

  • Having and/or displaying a picture of the loved one

  • Lighting a candle for the loved one (with appropriate supervision) or turning on a battery-powered candle

  • Dictating a message or having their thoughts written down by an older person

  • Talking about their deceased loved one as often as they need

Elementary school-aged children


Developmentally, elementary school children tend to be concrete and literal thinkers. They become emotionally dedicated to their friends and classmates, who represent a world outside their immediate families. Generally, elementary-age children work hard and thrive on success, but their efforts and self-esteem decline when they see themselves fail. They may gravitate toward mythic and superheroes. Elementary school-aged children have a strong sense of fairness and sharp verbal skills—and they may be somewhat graphic or impolite in their language, particularly when emotional.

 

At this age, children interpret even symbolic statements somewhat literally. They ask concrete questions about God and attach blame to someone when death occurs: “Why did God take my Mommy away?” or “I was bad, so Daddy left.” When children of this age cry in grief, it’s appropriate to hand them a tissue and offer a hug. Never minimize their grief using platitudes or stop their tears by saying they’re too big to cry. Tears are an appropriate response to death at every age. 


When elementary school-aged children ask questions like, “Why did Grandma die but Johnny didn’t?” it’s best simply to be available and present, giving age-appropriate information. Another way to be present and available is to acknowledge what the children might be feeling and then ask, “What do you think?” in order to understand better what their perception of this death is. Be open and honest in your answers to their questions and, if you don’t know an answer, it’s alright to say, “I don’t know, but we’ll learn together.” Acknowledging the thoughts and feelings of children gives them reassurance, even when you don’t have all the answers.


Elementary school-aged children might express a desire to participate in family funerals and memorials. They may feel comfortable leading a prayer that everyone knows, or they may be capable of reading a simple poem in honor of their loved one. In either case, children of this age need time to prepare; they need a choice and an understanding of how much time their part might take. Don’t be surprised if they back out and then decide to participate at the last minute. Be as flexible as possible.


Elementary school-aged children may benefit from the support of a caring non-family member such as a close family friend or their school counselor. In particular, some counselors will come to the home or family services in support of the involved children. School counselors often are trained to offer follow-up grief support when the children return to school, including grief support groups.


Other helpful mourning activities for elementary school children include


  • Drawing or coloring their feelings or memories of the deceased in a picture that they can keep (much like an older child might keep a journal)

  • Standing alongside a caring adult who reads what the child has written

  • At a formal service, signing the guest book and adding a memory to it

  • Joining in singing a well-known song

  • Using varied media like clay, Play Doh, watercolors, and magazine pictures to create a memento or gift for themselves or for a grieving adult

Middle school-aged children


Middle school children are in their pre-teen and early teen years. At these ages, children are becoming accustomed to greater independence and mobility. With their increased reasoning power and maturity, they are learning how to imagine themselves in someone else’s situation. The new experiences they have in and outside of school teach them to contextualize and that there are many ways to look at situations. In fact, their childhood sense of certainty may be rocked by the new situations that they notice around them. They have begun to need peer approval during this age. 


Middle school-aged children typically understand that death is permanent, and in this permanence, they may experience a sense of anger or of being cheated when a loved one dies. Their perceptions of God in various religions are changing as they develop, and they may become angry at God in ways they wouldn’t previously. In grieving the death of their loved one or friend, they have the capacity to both mourn the deceased person and to recognize the loss of that person’s unfulfilled dreams. They understand that, with respect to the deceased, the future is irrevocably changed.


When parents divorce or leave for long-term job changes, middle school-aged children may experience a number of these feelings as well, often ascribing permanence to their experiences of situations and feelings about them.

Children of this age may want to participate more directly in a funeral or memorial service and in family mourning more generally. These children may want their voices to be heard—particularly regarding the death of someone close. For example, they might want to say a few words about the deceased at a family gathering or funeral service. Support them by helping them to choose one memory or experience or even a poem and then rehearsing it with them. 


Regardless of the activity that middle school-aged children might choose for themselves, adults should support and supervise them. Discuss with them the purpose and structure of their activities; help them find the subject matter or actions that best fit their child’s needs while honoring the family’s needs, too. For example, if a school mate has died and children want to make a banner to honor their friend, an adult should make sure that the banner doesn’t include potentially offensive material that may upset the friend’s grieving family. 


Finally, just as children should never be pushed toward a casket to “honor” the deceased, they shouldn’t be forced or cajoled into saying anything publicly about the deceased. Always support shy children, particularly when they express the need to remain in the background at this traumatic time.


Other helpful mourning activities for middle school children include


  • Delivering a few spoken sentences about the deceased, which are outlined or written on note cards

  • Singing and/or writing a special song or playing it on the piano, guitar, or other musical instrument

  • Taking charge of placing mementos like photographs or objects the deceased used for a funeral or memorial service

  • Keeping a memento of the deceased (for example, shirt, pin, toy) and taking it to the ceremony to hold

  • Creating signature boards for friends and loved ones to sign

  • Writing a personal note of condolence to another bereaved family member or friend

High school-aged children


High school-aged children are adolescents in their mid-to-late teen years. They have adult or near-adult level reasoning capability, but they don’t always use it—particularly in exciting, dramatic, or frightening situations. Their emotions are hormonally charged, which may become evident in high and low mood extremes. Adolescents can easily imagine themselves in new situations and have separated themselves to some degree from their families. With their new identities developing, they have started to think more independently and to figure out what they believe as opposed to clinging to the traditional beliefs they’ve learned in their families. Adolescents often express their independence by making many of their own choices, driving, and earning money. They understand the permanence of death; therefore, they may be spiritually angry or feel cheated by the death that they’re grieving. They may respond by distancing themselves from the family instead of coming together with it.


Because adolescents are so much closer to adults both in appearance and behavior, it may be tempting to ask them to present a eulogy or other public speech for their loved one. Decide thoughtfully and in favor of the teen’s most basic needs for adult support. Adolescents are still children who in many ways are inexperienced and unprepared for the emotions involved in writing and delivering a eulogy or in doing other public honor to those who have died. For example, when children of this age have just lost a grandparent, parent, or sibling, they may be too closely affected by the death to participate in the ceremony as a speaker; if they break down in tears, they may experience their raw emotions as weak or embarrassing. There are times when it's best simply to be a mourner and to let others take charge. 


That said, some adolescent children may be empowered by speaking publicly when, for example, a friend or classmate has died. In such cases, a traditional eulogy can be given by an adult and a second short eulogy can be offered by one or two teenagers (although it isn’t uncommon for more teens to step up to say a few words for their friend). To best help bereaved adolescents interested in eulogizing their friends, put support into place.


  • Explain what a eulogy is. Then, help adolescents to talk to their friends and peer group members about what virtues and noble deeds they see in their deceased friend.

  • Similarly, ask adolescents to think of one or two biographical stories about their friend that demonstrates positive characteristics—skipping anything that is potentially upsetting to the family like under-age or excessive alcohol consumption, unsafe driving habits, gambling, or sexual activities.

  • To help focus the talk, give teens a specific time limit of about two-to-three minutes.

  • Read or discuss what the adolescents think they will say (or have written) to allow for revising the message.

  • Tell adolescents when they will deliver this short eulogy, where to stand, and how to speak into a microphone, if one is used.

A supporting adult should stand by and be ready to take over should adolescent speakers be overcome with grief and unable to finish talking. Other adults and friends should also be available to comfort adolescent mourners.


Other helpful mourning activities for high school children include


  • Making a scrapbook or picture from materials like photos, newspaper clippings, and ribbons to illustrate their memories and those of others

  • Singing or playing an instrument

  • Creating an original song

  • Recording memories/stories on tape recorder

  • Cooking the deceased’s favorite meal or desert and bringing it to a post-ceremony get-together

  • Taking charge of finding or creating a website to post memories and photos of the deceased

  • Finding a quiet corner and meditating for a few minutes—imagining they are someplace safe and comfortable like the beach or their own rooms


The suggested activities for children at various developmental stages can be adapted to most ages. For example, very young children can learn to meditate when they feel their grief become overwhelming, as can elementary and middle school children. Most creative media lend themselves to all ages for the purpose of representing the loved one or grief in symbolic ways. Music can touch and heal people. When given the chance, children—and adults—can be very creative in finding ways to mourn actively.


Finally, physical activities, which are best done at home (or away from the mourners at a formal ceremony), may be very helpful to bereaved children who need to be vigorous with their grief. Children need a variety of ways to express powerful emotions. For example, with a parent’s help or permission, children could put on a swimsuit and express themselves by finger painting the bathtub walls with water-soluble paints. The walls provide not only a large canvas but also an easily cleaned area where both negative and positive feelings can be expressed. 


Additional physical activities include


  • Hitting a pillow

  • Hammering nails into a 4x4” board

  • Exercising

  • Playing a physical game like basketball or soccer

  • Yelling in the shower or parked car (after letting others know they’ll be yelling and aren’t injured)

  • Kneading clay

  • Scribbling on paper

Just like adults, children grieve. As adults, we can help children find their best ways to express their feelings through active mourning.


 

* Some of this material is adapted from my book Good Words: Memorializing through a Eulogy (Westbow Press, 2013). Portions of this and the following descriptions of children’s development and their responses to death are borrowed and adapted with the author’s permission from Pat Fosarelli, MD’s Whatever You Do for the Least of These: Ministering to Ill and Dying Children and Their Families (MO: Liguori, 2003). These descriptions are supplemented by the practical experiences of Susan L. Pahl, LCSW, a clinical therapist and elementary school counselor.


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