Children grieve, but their grief reactions are different from adults. Often they experience grief in small amounts and for brief periods of time. They may be sad or crying one minute and happily playing the next. Children have short attention spans and are easily distracted from grief episodes. They can become emotionally overwhelmed with extensive periods of grief so they tend to “dose” themselves with small amounts of grieving at a time.
This can result in longer periods of grief for some children. According to the Harvard Child Bereavement Study, about 20-percent of children are “delayed grievers” and may have significant grief symptoms two or more years after the loss of a loved one. This is perfectly normal for some children.
Age and developmental stage greatly affects children’s grief experience and behavior. There are, however, some common traits across age groups. These can include:
- Denial: Pretending or wishing the loss did not occur or acting as if they are unaffected.
- Sadness: Crying constantly, at intervals, or not at all. They may have varying degrees of fatigue, hyperactivity or withdrawal.
- Fear: Frequently showing concern about death, particularly of their own loved ones, expressing concern about their welfare and future care giving, seeking contact and reassurance, clinging.
- Anger: Toward others, self, God, and the one who died; this anger may be hidden or expressed through words or behaviors. There may be increased sibling squabbles.
- Guilt and Self-Blame: Wishful thinking (if only…); regret; asking the same questions repeatedly to gain reassurance and relief; secretly blaming themselves.
- Regression: Returning to earlier level of functioning (bedwetting, seeking forgotten security blanket); usually turns around quickly with reassurance and the absence of criticism or judgment.
- Health or Sleep Changes: Minor health complaints; change in appetite, bad dreams, changes in sleep patterns, fear of sleeping alone.
- Protection of Parents: Children can act like little adults and may hide their grief in order to comfort and nurture the parent.
- Insecurity: Refusing to go to school; increased possessiveness.
These are general reactions. Children may exhibit one of more of these symptoms.