Why Children Grieve Differently

Losing a loved one is a devastating event that takes time to recover from. As parents, when faced with the death of a family member, how to communicate the loss to our children as well as helping them with their grief, can be puzzling and overwhelming.

Grief is universal. But it’s also unique. 

Is grief experienced differently for children? How should the news be communicated? What are signs that our children may need additional support? These are common questions parents have. “Grief is universal. But it’s also unique. It’s amazing how many of the things I went through when I was 9, I see in other kids that are in that similar age range,” said Erin Spalding, LCSW, the program director of The Christi Center located in Austin, Texas. Erin experienced grief at a young age having lost her father at age 9 and then the mom she knew at age 17, who never fully recovered from a stroke. Erin now helps grieving families by facilitating the teen and young adult groups at the Center, community trainings on grief and loss, and supervising upcoming clinical professional interns in support of the counseling services through the school system.

The most important thing to remember about kids, is that they re-grieve at every developmental stage.

One difference in the way that adults and kids grieve stems from the fact that children are still developing their cognitive capacities. Children go through “a bunch of developmental stages throughout childhood and they may be moving forward in their grief, but then have what looks like a set back… what that really is, is them understanding their loss in a different way,” said Erin. This can also be seen in adults as they experience grief at different milestones in their lives; for example, you are moving from your early 20s into starting a family, and you think about what is that going to look like starting a family without mom here?

Regarding children who are grieving, they re-grieve at every developmental level in a way that incorporates the loss into themselves. It is difficult to predict when a child will go through a different development stage as this varies from child to child. However, usually parents will see a developmental shift around age 5, followed by another one around age 8 or 9, another at age 11, and one in the older teen years that can look a little different. And not every child at these specific ages will hit this developmental level and re-grieve. Children can be younger or older depending on their understanding of grief and loss. Erin says she’s met a 3 year old that seemed to understand the permanence of loss and she’s met a 7 year old who didn’t, when typically that comes around ages 4 and 5. 

Also, when it comes to letting young kids know about the death of a family member or friend, it is advised that parents be as concrete as possible about the death. Kids are very imaginative and believe in “magic.” Therefore, Erin advises against saying things like “daddy is lost” or “daddy went to sleep and isn’t coming back,” as little kids can wonder why daddy is not being looked for or why he is not waking up. They also might be scared to go to sleep thinking this could also happen to them. Being concrete in the language used especially for young children is the best way to talk about the loss.

Erin also recommends being honest from the beginning, even if it’s a dramatic loss. “You don’t have to give details, but you don’t want to say Dad was in a car accident, when Dad died by suicide,” says Erin. Later on when your kids find out the truth, they can have a lack of trust in you as the remaining parent. “Always have a solid foundation with them,” Erin exclaims. If you don’t know how to talk to your children about loss because of their age, contact The Christi Center or a grief professional for advice. Being honest and open to your child/children’s questions, even when you don’t know the answers, is still communicating to them about the loss.

Children don’t typically have the vocabulary to express how they’re feeling.

Another thing to consider is the difference in the way children communicate. Children don’t typically have the vocabulary to express how they’re feeling. They may say they are sad, but they may be frustrated, confused, etc., all of the intricate pieces of emotions that we as adults can communicate. Giving children the opportunity to draw out their feelings, or providing them with other tools for expressing their grief will help them communicate their feelings in healthy ways. But if you’re just wanting to be there for your child, the most important thing is to take care of yourself first, which is out of instinct, but extremely important if you are wanting to provide them with the best support. By “taking care of your own grief needs… you can be there and be present for the needs of your kids,” Erin says. 

Also, try giving your kids space, which can be hard as a parent because we want to make sure our kids take the right steps. But when they’re grieving, kids need to go through that process the way they need to go through that process. For example, Erin advises against jumping to: “You need to get out of your room,” or “you used to love to play basketball and now you don’t, you gotta go back.” It is important to help them figure out where grief is going to land for them. However, grief can be very isolating as well. It is common for kids to want to “fit in” and they may find themselves feeling out of place in their school environment. Therefore, grief support groups are a great way for kids to be around people who “get it” — other kids who are experiencing similar situations. Regardless, “whether you are a kid or a person well into their 70s, connecting with others can help you move forward through your grief journey,” Erin exclaims.

Erin also shares that some of the signs that may indicate a child is not moving forward with their grief are if they’re stuck on processing pieces of the loss, not being able to talk about the loss, and/or isolating themselves even after significant time has passed. These are all indications that therapy might be helpful. 

On the other hand, evidence that healing is progressing is if they weren’t able to talk about Dad before, but now they can say something about him. Even if not directly with you, if they can open up to someone and are able to make connections with other people, that is a good sign that they are moving forward. 

You don’t get over “it”... “It” is the love for your loved one, and you will always have that in your heart.

Erin reminds us to keep in mind that you don’t “recover” from a loss. You get to a place where you’ve incorporated that loss into who you are. No matter what age, you will never recover. That doesn’t mean you’re carrying around a “grief piece.” But you want to get to a place where you’re carrying those people in your heart; where you’re able to think of them and what they brought to your life rather than just the pain of losing them. “Grief is a roller coaster and it’s a lifelong journey. It doesn’t mean the pain of the grief is a lifelong burden, it just means recognizing and appreciating what your loved ones brought to your life while they were here,” Erin shares.

For more of our videos with Erin, please visit our YouTube channel.

Jessica MartinsenComment