Children between the ages of 0-6 react to bereavement very differently from adults. At a few months of age babies can already sense that something is amiss and that their parent is upset and under stress. In many instances babies react with their own distress signals such as increased crying, sleep disturbances, or lack of appetite. Experts say that by the age of three months children are able to feel emotions such as grief and loss.

Death has a profound effect on a child’s sense of security, especially in the case of a close relative, such as a parent. In such cases children may be overcome with the fear of suddenly losing their other parent or caretakers, or even of dying themselves. In early childhood children are usually focused on themselves and on how the loss of the deceased impacts them. Children’s experiences in this age group center not only on the person who is gone, but on the sudden changes in their environment, routine, and sense of security.

In contrast to adults, who tend to mourn continuously after experiencing the loss of a loved one and are often able to reach some level of resolution, children have more of a cyclical mourning process. At each new stage of development a child may go experience the loss and bereavement in a new and different manner. The death of a loved one when a child was two, for instance, will take on a new and no less difficult meaning again at age six, when he or she realizes that the loss is final.

We must be sensitive to the possibility that the loss of a significant family member, particularly a parent, remains quite painful as time goes by. It is important to be aware of this continued development and to anticipate a child’s renewed interest in death in general, and their lost loved one more specifically, at various times over the course of children’s development.

4 Ways a Child’s Mourning Differs From an Adult’s:

  1. Language
    Young children do not have fully developed verbal skills so they may have a hard time describing their grief in words well enough so as to express their feelings and ask for help. This may be a very frustrating feeling for both child and adult. Adults may try and offer alternative outlets to talking, such as drawing, games or physical activity.
  2. Comprehension
    Children, especially very young ones, have difficulty comprehending the finality of death. They generally understand it as something temporary or reversible until around six years of age. In addition, children often make erroneous connections between cause and effect on the basis of contiguity in time or place. For example, if the person who died was hospitalized before his or her death, the young child may think that the ride to the hospital was the cause of death. The child may generalize based on this misconception and be afraid to go to the doctor or the hospital.
  3. Support
    As adults we know how and where to seek help when we need it. Small children are not able to fend for themselves and must rely on whatever support they are given. Adults in the young child’s environment may be so caught up in their own grief that they have few resources left for their children. Therefore it is important for other adults, family members and school staff to be in tune with – and listen to – the child’s needs and to spend a lot of time talking and playing.
  4. Continuity
    Unlike adults, children are unable to maintain long periods of time crying and mourning and usually alternate between sadness and routine over the course of just a few minutes. Sometimes this may seem as if the child is suppressing his grief, or does not understand it, but this is not necessarily so. It is simply the young child’s way of coping and is appropriate to his or her emotional and developmental capacity.

Children Ages 0 – 3
At this age children find it hard to understand the meaning of death. They see it as separation or abandonment, but are unable to conceive of its finality, or the fact that the person who died will never come back. This is why they may not seem as disturbed as older children, although they can still sense that others around them are very upset. The most influential factor for the child at this stage is how the parent or caregiver reacts. If a sense of routine and safety is maintained this can greatly help the child to cope. If this basic sense of security is missing, the young child may experience problems such as sleep disturbances, separation anxiety from adults, irritability and regressive behavior such as bed-wetting, thumb sucking and loss of appetite.

Children Ages 3 – 6
At the age of 3, and sometimes 4, children still do not have the capacity to understand that death is final. They imagine it to be a temporary and reversible state. Comprehension only begins to set in at the end of this period. Children this age begin to try to figure out the reason for the deceased’s death. The conclusions they reach are not always the correct ones since children this age tend to think in magical terms and are convinced that their thoughts can influence situational outcomes and alter the course of events. This may cause children to experience feelings of guilt, as they may be quite certain that their thoughts or anger towards the deceased are what brought about the death. Sometimes children may even think that their own good behavior can bring back the deceased. It is important for adults to allow discussion of these feelings. At this age there may also be regression to earlier behaviors such as thumb-sucking and bed-wetting. In some cases children may report having seen or heard the deceased.

Children of this age tend to take literally such explanations as “Grandpa went to sleep forever” and wonder if when they go to sleep they might die as well. It is important to be aware that sayings like “he went to sleep” or “God took him away to be with Him” can sound more frightening than the truth. The child may be afraid to go to sleep for fear that God will take him or her away as well. It is important to explain the truth calmly in an age appropriate manner, and to be ready to repeat the explanation again and again. Allowing the child to ask questions, not only in the immediate aftermath of loss, but over the course of time, is paramount. Often, in our society, death is a taboo topic, and the child may sense that death is not something one should discuss. Showing your child that you are there to answer any questions can be extremely reassuring during this uncertain time.