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Infants Through Adolescents - How Children Cope With Grief

The cognitive and emotional levels of development from infant through
adolescent cover a wide span of grief. The age of a child/adolescent and
a child's/adolescent's perception of death must be understood before the
caregiver or facilitator starts interacting with the child.

A grieving child at each different level of development will need assistance
in building coping skills and finding a sense of closure to his/her loss.
Children at all developmental stages experience grief on different chronological
and emotional levels.

Infants and Toddlers

Children younger than four can sense that something is wrong as they
experience the grief of their primary caretaker. The absence of the mother
may cause a clear biological reaction. Anger, crying, searching, lack
of appetite, and finally quiet resignation are the ways in which a child
will grieve for the loss of the mother/primary caretaker.

The child should not be passed from caretaker to caretaker.

What one does is far more important to the child this young than what
one says. Generally, a grieving infant or toddler needs large doses of
tender, loving care--holding, cuddling, and stroking.

Four- to Six-Year Olds

Bereaved children between four and six have a limited and literal understanding
of death. For a child in this age range, death may be explained in physical
terms. Because thinking is very literal and bodily oriented, death may
be best explained as follows:

His/her heart stopped beating and no one can make it start again. Therefore,
we won't be seeing him/her move or talk anymore. We will bury the body
in the ground, because (identify the person, using their name) is not
able to do or say anything anymore.

Children will often note the discrepancy between burial of the body and
the description of "going away" or "going to Heaven."
While the young child probably can't grasp the concept, one might address
the distinction as the part that we love--the part that smiled and laughed
and loves us-is the part that has gone to heaven. The old, broken body
is now what is in the ground.

Caretakers can facilitate therapeutic role-play by sitting with the child
as he or she plays with dolls, stuffed animals, puppets, toy cars, and
doll houses. Look for aggression in play and explore where the anger is

Seven- to Eleven-Year Olds

Children ages seven to eleven are still primarily oriented to the family,
and although they've begun to relate to and gain self-identity through
their peers, play is still a mode of self-expression. Children this age
also express themselves quite well orally, especially the primary feelings
of mad, glad, and sad.

They have begun to grasp more abstract concepts such as truth, time,
space, and death, although magical thinking still plays a role. Most commonly,
seven-or eight-year-olds become fearful of death because they realize
for the first time it's real.

No matter who dies, they may feel devastated at the thought of losing
a parent. Obviously, the death of a parent is extremely traumatic at this
age. Some of their questions may indicate fears of their own death. Death
is seen as an attacker who takes life.

Free expression of grief must be encouraged, and children must be told
over and over that they didn't cause the death and that the dead person
did not choose to die. A child of this age may also fear that death is
a punishment for improper behavior. They may fear that their naughty behavior
has brought about the death of a loved one, and they are being punished
for it. They may also believe that they or another loved one will be the
next to die.

A more adult concept of life and death develops roughly between the ages
of nine and eleven. At this developmental level, the children have learned
that only people, plants, and animals live and die. Children of this age
are not only sensitive to their own feelings, but can now enter into the
feelings of others.

As a result, they are more understanding of what the loss may mean to
others, and they are able to show empathy. Children in the upper end of
this range not only need support and comfort, but also can be a source
of support and comfort for others. Opportunities to be helpful to others
during the crisis can actually help children deal with their own feelings.

Adolescents 12-17

To the emotionally healthy adolescent, death is foreign; it's something
they simply do not want to think about. Sometimes their self-destructive
behavior, such as alcohol or drug abuse or playing chicken in an automobile
are means of saying "I'm not afraid of death; it's a game--I'm making
a plaything of it."

However, the real meaning beneath the behavior is that they're trying
to control their fear and insecurity by making it a game. Moving fast
and keeping the music loud can be an escape from having to face their

When met with the loss of an important relationship, the adolescent's
self-centered values may cause them great fear, guilt, anxiety, and anger.
Adolescents have the capacity for empathy with other grieving family members
or friends, so their pain is doubled.

Because an adolescent forms more intimate relationships with peers than
with parents, it's advisable that networks or groups be make available
for adolescents who have experienced the death of a loved one.

The adolescent may respond well to another adult who is willing to listen
and assume a surrogate parent role with them. While reluctant to participate
in their own family grief or support groups, they may respond well to
a pastor, school counselor, or another adolescent who "understands."

Caretakers of a grieving adolescent should not be discouraged if their
teen reaches to someone other than family. That's normal at this stage
of development.

Authored by Yvonne Butler Clark, author, It's Okay to Cry

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