Grief at different ages
Babies and young infants (under 2 years of age)
Even at this age a baby will be aware that someone is missing to whom they are attached. They will not understand what death means. They will experience the pain of the separation and have no language with which to express that loss.
There will be a gradual realisation that this absence is permanent and the person is never coming back. The child will experience this as an unnameable fear or dread and they will begin to feel unsafe which can result in them fearing for their own survival.
Adults can usually comfort the child if they are not too upset themselves but the parents’ emotions and those around them will affect even very young babies. The smell of a blanket or jumper of the person who has died will be familiar and comforting for the infant.
Minimising the disruptions and maintaining a familiar routine around the home can help. This is very difficult when the family is grieving as everyone will be affected to some extent and so the care of the younger child may well be disrupted. Loving environment will minimise the impact of the loss.
As the child grows up, it will be important to talk about the person who has died and share the memories within the family.
Infants (age 2-5)
At this age, a child realises that something profound has happened. They will not understand that death is final. They are used to watching cartoon characters miraculously be whole again after being crushed or blown up which can add to the confusion. They do gradually begin to realise that it means the dead person is not coming back and this threatens their safe and familiar world.
If the death is of someone very important such as a parent, the child will go through a grieving process similar to that of adults. If their development until this time has gone well, they will have a reasonably secure picture of their loved ones inside of them – a sort of ‘Mummy or Daddy’ inside their minds’ – and this will help with the separation.
If the loss is not of a close relative, they may be curious about what has happened but get on with everyday activities and absorb it as part of their play.
They may regress in behaviour to that of a younger child and could begin to be agitated or restless at night or be afraid to go to sleep. They can often ask questions, which to an adult may seem morbid but they have a natural curiosity and need answers. It is important to spend time with your child and provide a secure, loving environment and simple, honest answers to questions. They may ask the same thing many times and you may find yourself constantly having to repeat the answers. A regular routine, particularly around preparing for bed at night time is very important.
Young children can understand the concept of death, but do not appreciate its finality and may expect the dead person to reappear – “shall we dig granny up now?” They think in concrete terms and so will be confused by euphemisms for death such as “gone away” or “gone to sleep”. They may require repeated explanations of what has happened. As their thinking is very much centred on themselves, they may consider that something they did or said caused the death. They are prone to fantasise at this age and if not told what is happening may dream up something scarier than reality.
At five years of age most children realise that dead people are different from live people – they do not feel, they cannot hear, see, smell or speak and they do not need to eat or drink.
Children (Age 6-12)
Children at this age are beginning to develop a more full understanding of life and death and what that means. They become aware that everyone dies, including themselves. They may be more interested in the actual cause of death ‘Why suicide?’, ‘Why cancer?’ etc.
If good support is not in place, a child may withdraw and be unable to express feelings. They may appear ‘stuck’ and unable to grieve and may even need professional help especially if the important adults in their lives are grieving too. It is important for an adult to share their grief with a child but not to offload onto them. This could lead the child to feel that there is no space for their own grief, and it is also important not to say things such as ‘I know how you feel’ as no one does really know.
Children at this age are beginning make important relationships with people at school. The death of a person at home can make them feel unsafe and more dependant again. School can play an important part in helping the world to be a safe place with routine and structure, which is what children need and want.
By seven the majority of children accept that death is permanent and can happen to anyone. They are more able to express their thoughts and feelings but may conceal them and appear unaffected to protect the adults around them. They need opportunities to ask questions and to be given as much information as possible. They are likely to be very interested in the rituals surrounding death.
At this age children’s understanding of death almost matches that of an adult, although they find it difficult to grasp abstract concepts. An important factor is their deepening realisation of the fact that death happens to everyone, even themselves.
A young person may be alternating between being so busy living life that they rarely stop to think about life and death. A significant death can make a young person feel confused and isolated. They are developing ideas and beliefs in their own about life. Just as they are beginning to separate from the family they can then start to feel really insecure. This can draw them into:
- A very private existence
- More childlike behaviour patterns
- Being very matter of fact and detached
- Being worried about emotions overwhelming them
- Becoming very angry
Many of these are normal expressions of teenage behaviour. This can make it difficult to know when additional help is needed. Peer support can be particularly important to young people. If the young person is eating normally, sleeping, managing school and social life then it is probably safe to let the grieving process take its normal course. They will need even more than ever to have boundaries and limits maintained. It is important not to make assumptions about what the person may need; they may find it useful to talk to someone outside of the family who is not in danger of feeling too upset or overwhelmed.
Young people need to know that it is okay to:
- Cry and feel depressed. They’ve lost a great deal. If their feelings get too overwhelming, they should find an adult or a friend who they can share them with
- Copy some activities or interest of the dead person
- Retain their own life
- Live in the past for a while, it can help to keep alive the memory of the dead person
- Have fun and enjoy life and to laugh again
- Forgive themselves for the fights and arguments and nasty things they said to the dead parent or sibling
- Go on living
But it’s not okay to:
- Use drugs or alcohol to dull their senses
- Act out their frustration harming themselves or others
- Use sex just to get close to someone
- Drop things that once meant so much to them
- Signs that a young person may need extra help include:-
- Prolonged deterioration in relationships with family and friends
- Risk taking behaviour or self-harm; such as drugs and drink, fighting and unboundaried sex
- Lack of interest at school
- Signs of depression, sleeping difficulties and low self-esteem