Children’s grief reactions and their understanding of life and death largely depend on their age.
0-3 year olds experience death as loss, separation or being abandoned. However, they have no understanding of the finality of death.
3-6 year olds are confident that everything is temporary and everything can be made better. Their thinking is fantastical and they imagine that their thoughts and desires can lead to change. They may, for example, consider themselves to be to blame for the death of a loved one, but it can also be the other way around, that is, they may think they can revive someone by being particularly good or wishing for it hard enough.
6-8 year olds are beginning to understand the finality of death. However, they see it mostly as a result of some kind of accident or due to aging. They are often very interested in the course of events that led to death and wonder what happens after people die.
After the age of 9, children realize that death represents an end and can not be reversed. They realize that everyone dies, including themselves. At this age, children begin to show more adult responses to loss and grief.
Children who experience trauma and grief do not always show typical grief reactions as their grief is unique and is closely related to their development. A young child who experiences loss often has to reprocess the grief at a new stage of development. As a result, grief often recurs in children, and even into adulthood.
Children’s grief is therefore very difficult to deal with and requires that we, the adults, be prepared for it to present itself when the child engages in demanding developmental tasks such as starting school and adolescence. We must also be prepared for the fact that any change in the circumstances of children can trigger grief reactions and grief processing.
Children who have experienced grief or trauma may exhibit abnormal behavior, fall behind in their learning and development, and exhibit various physical symptoms.
Aches – the child may experience aches in parts of the body or everywhere.
Excessive emotional turmoil such as anger and irritability for no apparent reason.
School anxiety – the child does not feel up to attending school – partly due to separation from the parent and home and because of how vulnerable they are among their schoolmates and teachers. The child may just want to stay in the safety of the home.
Depression – the child does not seem to be able to enjoy anything, does not get up to anything new and can sit and stare at nothing for hours. The child also reacts badly to all attempts at companionship.
All of these reactions can be normal and can occur at different times in the child’s developmental process, last for varying lengths of time and come and go in waves.
Acting out – the child hides their feelings behind difficult behavior, mouths off at the teacher and others who try to approach or control them.
Indifference – the child shows no interest in people, hobbies or social activities they participated in before.
Fear of being alone – for example, the child cannot be home alone, even if they are old enough and have been home alone before they experienced loss.
Although most reactions and behaviors are normal when a child has experienced trauma and loss, we must not attribute all explanations for the emotional state and behavior of children to grief. If a child who has experienced trauma does not manage to process their grief, they become trapped in the grieving process followed by an abnormal condition that can end in a major psychological crisis. Reactions such as stomach pain or shortness of breath can also have a physical explanation that is not related to grief and the child may need medical treatment.
If children show excessive grief symptoms for a long time, there is reason to believe that they are not able to process the grief and will need professional help.
The words of Sigurður Pálsson, priest in Halllgrímskirkja.
“A child who is struggling with a problem needs a warm embrace, a warm heart and wide-open ears, but the mouth should be small.”
• Trevor Romain: What on Earth Do You Do When Someone Dies? Skálholtsútgáfan, 2010. A book that addresses the number of questions that children and adolescents ask after the loss of a loved one.
• Guðrún Alda Harðardóttir: When Dad Died. Hasla, 1983. A realistic story about life and death, seen from the point of view of a six-year-old boy.
• Astrid Lindgren: The Brothers Lionheart. Forlagið, 2012
• Sigurður Pálsson: Children and Grief. Skálholtsútgáfan, 1998.