How Children React to Death
Children of all ages go through the grieving process. Any child who is old enough to emotionally care for someone is old enough to grieve. However, this is no one way that children grieve. Children react to, and cope with, death in various ways. There are many things that determine how an individual child grieves. One thing that relates to how children grieve is their age. Children under six usually do not understand the finality of death. Many children in this age range believe that death is temporary or reversible. They may appear unaffected by the death, especially if their immediate needs for security and reassurance are being met, because they believe the person will eventually return. Young children who have a limited understanding of death often react according to how others around them are reacting because it is difficult for them to understand exactly what has happened. It is usually not until somewhere between the ages of six and nine years that children begin to truly understand the finality of death.
Age is only one factor that impacts how children react to death. Other factors include a child’s personality, their past experiences with death, and how other family members and friends are reacting. The important point to understand is that different children grieve in different ways. There is no one “right way” for children to react or grieve. Listed below are some common ways children react to the death of a family member or loved one.
Accepting the death of someone we love is a very difficult task. Denial (refusing to accept the death) is one of the reactions that we often see initially, especially during the six to eight week period following the death.
The death of someone we love is a very sad experience for children, as with adults. As the sense of loss sets in, sadness may increase. For young children, sadness may intensify when they finally realize that the person that they love is not going to come back. While sadness is a common reaction, significant ongoing depression is not. If you are concerned that your child is significantly depressed you should seek professional assistance.
Most children have very limited, if any, experiences related to the death of a loved one. When death does occur, may children become anxious about the unknown. They may worry that they will die, or if a parent died that their other parent will die.
Young children may have a difficult time with guilt because of their lack of understanding of “cause and effect.” They may believe that their bad thoughts or bad actions caused the death. For example, if a child in anger said, “I wish he were dead” and if that person then dies, the child may feel that they caused the death.
Some children misbehave a lot following a death. There are many reasons why such misbehavior may occur. For example, some children may misbehave to get attention or because of the guilt they may feel. Other children may “regress” in their behavior. This means they behave as if they were younger than they are. Older children and adolescents may act out (drug or alcohol use, risky behaviors, disobeying rules, sex, or other harmful activities).
Anger is a common reaction of many children. Such anger can be directed at anyone or anything. It is not uncommon for children to express anger at the person who died because they may feel deserted by that person. Some children do not express a lot of anger but are very irritable.
Changes in sleeping and eating habits and physical symptoms are common in some children. Children may be having difficulty falling asleep, waking up, dreaming, increased or decreased appetite, stomachaches, headaches, and difficulty concentrating.
During the grieving process almost all children will display some of the reactions listed above. Remember, for the most part, these are normal reactions. It is impossible to say how long such reactions will last. The grieving process is an ongoing process--there is no one point when a child (or adult) stops grieving. However, parents can help their children with the grieving process and hopefully minimize the length and severity of the behaviors listed above. The following section offers advice to parents on helping their children mourn.