Children & Grief:
Losing a Family Member

During 2021 my own family had a great deal of loss. The biggest loss was my father, my children's grandfather. He passed away unexpectedly in May and my kids and I grieved hard. My son, in 4th grade at the time, only ended up missing one day of school. He was given the opportunity to be an honorary pallbearer at the funeral, but declined because he did not feel he would be able to stay strong for it (he is the one pictured hugging me).

My daughter, 5 years old, and in EAK ended up missing the remainder of her school year. She could not sleep alone anymore, she had nightmares, and was crying often. At school, which is what ultimately lead to us pulling her, she was making herself sick at school and letting her teacher know how hard of a time she was having. She had a picture of her and her grandfather that I gave her that she started to regularly carry around with her, having meals with him and incorporating him into her games.

For both, we read books - finding The Invisible String and Something Very Sad Happened very therapeutic for both myself and my kids. I will have a list of books recommended for this topic in another blog post soon.

Both kids attended his funeral. As did my nieces and nephews of varying ages.

They were able to process through the summer and started the school year with no problem. My daughter could now sleep in her own bed, through the night again. Only bringing up my father rarely, particularly when tired.

In August we lost my maternal grandmother. This sent my little one back into grief and difficulty with sleep, but was able to continue attending school.

My grieving stress added to theirs, but I knew the importance of keeping routine and addressing their emotional needs. I did not hide my grief from them, but let them know when I was having a hard time.

As grandparents age and illnesses take people away too soon - children will at some point in their lives feel the impact of grief. Depending on their age it will impact them in very different ways. The following descriptions are very general guidelines, but can help many understand where children are in their ability to grasp death.

For babies and toddlers, they grieve, but they do not really grasp the concept of death. They have less understanding of the world around them. Depending on their relationship with the person that they lost, particularly if a close attachment figure - the emotional state of the child will be greatly affected. If it is not a close attachment figure, someone they rarely see, they may not notice a change. This will change if their primary caregiver is heavily grieving, as infants generally will pick up on the emotional stress and be negatively impacted. It is important to maintain their routines as much as possible.

For younger children, preschool age, this is a hard concept to grasp. Death is not seen as permanent, they believe that the loved one could return or that you can go visit them. Play behavior is normal during this time, as children will often play to process what happened. Their routine should stay as consistent as possible, with affection and reassurance whenever needed as the death could affect their sense of security. Concerning behaviors include regression, nightmares, aggression, non-compliance.

It is important to provide simple and straightforward explanations at this age. Remind them that death is permanent, correct their misperceptions, and do not use euphemisms. Though mentioned above - provide affection and reassurance while doing this.

School-age children start to understand that death is final and permanent. They may begin to have a fear of death and of others dying. They may feel guilt and blame themselves for the death. May not be able able to put their feelings into words. May ask concrete and specific questions about death - including the process. Concerning behaviors include compulsive care giving, aggression, possessiveness, regression, headaches, stomachaches, and phobias.

Family and peer relationships are important during this time, to provide security and to help them avoid feeling different. School may be affected and school staff should be informed so that they can provide additional support. It is important to give clear realistic information and to offer to include the child in funeral ceremonies.

Pre-adolescent children recognize that death is final and irreversible, though may view it as a punishment. They may ask more details about the death and may come up with their own explanations for it. They may also ask practical questions related to the death and services. Concerning behaviors include aggression, possessiveness, headaches, stomachaches, phobias, and defiance.

Their grief reactions may be heightened by their own physical and emotional changes.

Adolescent children are nearing adult levels of concepts, which means they may worry or think about their own death and may avoid discussions of death. They fear looking different and question religious beliefs. They may fear the future. Concerning behaviors include aggression, possessiveness, headaches, stomachaches, phobias, defiance, suicidal ideation, increased high-risk behavior (sexual activity, drug use, risk-taking).

They may be affected physically by the grieving process, especially in areas of sleep and appetite. It is important that adults support their independence and access to peers, but also provide emotional support when needed.

If you or your children need additional support during this time, therapy is always an option.