Every child has their own unique way of understanding and responding to death and grief. The child’s age and level of development plays a large role in this understanding. While every child is different, there are still several overlaps that exist among age groups. This is because each child moves between developmental stages at different rates.
From Infancy to Two Years of Age
Babies don’t have the cognitive ability to understand a concept as abstract as death. Babies function in the moment and are generally aware of only what is happening in the present moment. When a significant person in their live dies, babies are aware of a sense of loss and separation. They are responsive to the emotions and actions of adults in their environment. Disruptions in the level of nurturing as well as their feeding schedule are also noticed. Sudden change to the environment can cause dramatic discomfort.
Responding to Grief
When a person close to a baby dies, the baby may continue to search for the individual. As a result, the baby is likely to become anxious when the person isn’t found. A baby may exhibit several symptoms in reaction to the separation, including irritability, protect, crying, sleeping changes, eating changes, decrease of activity and loss of weight.
Preschool Aged Children: Age Two to Four
Preschool aged children don’t understand the concept of forever. They may ask when their mother will come home, or how the deceased individual eats or breathes. These questions indicate that the child doesn’t understand that death isn’t reversible and may see death as temporary. Telling a preschool child that a parent isn’t coming back may not register, and the child may ask an hour later when they can see their parent. Children at this age don’t understand that death is different from life. They also don’t understand that death is something that can happen to them. Children at this age enjoy playing “peek-a-boo” games, and it is through these types of games that they begin to understand the concept of a permanent disappearance.
Responding to Grief
Preschool children, like infants, operate in the present. Grief can be experienced very intensely, but it’s generally brief. Children at this age are beginning to form attachments and learn how to trust. When a significant person in their life dies, they begin to become very concerned with any changes in their routine. Alterations in their pattern of care and any separations can become serious problems for these children. Anxiety is generally increased, and these children become overly sensitive to rejection and separation in their life. This is because they can’t yet use fantasy to gain any sort of control over the events in their life. Like infants, preschool age children also respond to the emotions of the adults in their environment. When parents are worried or sad, they often respond with a tantrum or begin crying. This may occur out of genuine concern or as a way to distract their parents from tough emotions. Children of this age general experience confusion, nightmares, and agitation at night. They also may exhibit regressive behaviors such as clinging, wetting the bed, uncontrollable crying, thumb sucking, temper tantrums and withdrawal. Despite learning that the deceased will not return, they may continue to search for lost loved ones. Additionally, an increase in anxiety toward strangers may develop.
Children in Early Childhood: Age Four to Seven
Children in this age group still tend to see death as reversible and temporary. They may begin asking questions about whether the death was their fault. Citing examples of when they were mad at their loved ones, which they believe caused the death. They may also cite examples from cartoons or television shows where a character came back to life. This group tends to feel responsible for the death and attribute their negative thoughts or behaviors as a reason for the death. Through a process of “magical thinking,” the children believe that everything happening in their environment is due to their existence. They believe they control what happens, and even if a child of this age is exposed to death through the media or school, they may believe that it’s still possible to avoid death. Children in this stage also may connect occurrences that have nothing to do with each other. For example, if the child received a new toy the day their sister died, they may believe that the toy caused her death. It’s important that the real cause of death be explained to the child to help them move on.
Responding to Grief
Children may ask repeatedly where the deceased has gone. Questions about the death process are also common at this stage. The child may ask questions about what happens when people die or how do dead people eat. They may express their feelings through play and not have the capacity to express their thoughts verbally. Often, themes about loss in the family may exhibit through artwork, dolls or action figures. The child may play out the death or replay a funeral. These children may also appear unaffected by the death and act like nothing happened. This isn’t a sign that they are oblivious to death or that they have accepted the death. It may simply indicate that they are unable to accept this painful reality. Their reactions may be modeled after the adults in their lives. This is especially true if adults don’t know how to express feelings of grief appropriately. Anger, sadness, eating disorders, sleeping issues and difficulty concentrating may also become apparent. This age group may regress. This is done to receive additional attention, nurturing and affection during a difficult time. These children tend to be more fearful that other loved ones may also leave them alone. Attachments to people who resemble the deceased may be formed as a way of coping.
The Middle Years: Age Seven to 10
Children in this age bracket are starting to develop a concept of death. They may ask questions about the process of death and what it’s like to be dead. Questions about whether fingernails and hair keep growing when you die may get asked. They also start to realize that their actions may have a direct impact on their existence, and they may ask if smoking cigarettes or eating unhealthy could kill them. This age group tends to want to see death as preventable and reversible, but they are beginning to understand that this is not the case. They may begin to visualize death in the form of something tangible, like a ghost or boogeyman. Curiosity about death is increased during this stage, and they may ask questions about the different methods of burial. At this stage, they still think death is something that happens to other people and families. They tend to believe that it will only happen to people who are very old, sick, or don’t take care of themselves. They want to believe that they can escape death through their own efforts. Death may also be seen as a punishment. This is especially common before age nine. In some instances, they may understand how death can affect their own life, and it can become a source of anxiety.
Responding to Grief
The middle years can be fraught with concern for how others are responding to a death. They may become less focused on themselves and focus more on other people. As a fear that other loves ones will die grows, they also may become overly concerned about their own health. This can result in an increased fear of bodily harm that could result in death. Acting out rage, anger and sadness is not uncommon in this age group. Children may also exhibit difficulties in school. Some children may respond in the opposite way, and they may exhibit a jocular attitude toward death. These children may appear indifferent or attempt to hide their real feelings. Shock, denial, eating changes, sleeping changes, depression, and regression may also occur during this stage. Often, children in this age group will take on some of the mannerisms of the deceased. They may take on the chores and tasks that were typically performed in an effort to connect with the deceased and maintain a bond.
Children in Pre-Adolescence: Age 10 to 12
Children in this age bracket often see death in the same way as children in their middle years. However, since they are in the process of establishing their own identity, they may exhibit a few unique differences. Children in this age group may reason that none of their friends can relate to losing a loved one, or they may make statements about not understanding why others get so upset about death. Yet, they can still admit they will miss those who have passed on. An increase in the development of their own independence from their parents and siblings is occurring in children in this age group. They typically try to understand both the biological and emotional process of death. Children in this age bracket have a greater ability to understand the facts surrounding the death of a loved one. They also have better control over the feelings surrounding the death.
Responding to Grief
Pre-adolescents may want to cover up their feelings so that they don’t appear unique or different from their peers. This is often the result of a fear of expressing emotions since it could be conveyed as weakness. This is especially true for boys. They may seem removed and indifferent as a result. Uncharacteristic acting out, anger outbursts, irritability and bullying behavior may begin to become apparent as well. Physical complaints, moodiness, sleeping and eating changes, indifference to school, and isolation are all possible symptoms for children in this age bracket. A concern for practical issues may begin to emerge. They may worry that the household won’t survive without their loved one. They may also wonder how they are going to be taken care of. Religious and cultural questions may also begin to arise.