How Children Grieve
Ask an Expert Question When I told my three children (6, 9, and 13) that their grandmother died they were sad but not for long. I thought they’d be more upset. While they didn’t see her every day, we saw her at least monthly. Since Mom didn’t want a funeral we didn’t do anything to mark her death. I feel unbearably sad every day without her, but only my 13-year-old shows any occasional sadness. It’s upsetting to me that they so quickly seem unaffected. Is there something wrong with how my kids are reacting? Is this because we didn’t have a funeral? Answer My heart goes out to you. The death of a mother is a profound loss since she is the one who typically shapes our basic sense of well-being in the world from the beginning. Your deep sadness reflects how the loss of our mother can shake the foundations of our life. Plus you have three grievers in your life who are young and experiencing and expressing this loss in their own unique ways. Your situation is complex and challenging. Children grieve differently based on many factors, including their personality, strength of attachment, the impact of the loss to their daily life, and other variables. Just as children mature in physical ability, so they grow in cognitive abilities. Most child developmental specialists point to the capacity to understand non-functionality, irreversibility, universality, causality, and continuity of connection as fundamental building blocks in a child’s cognitive ability to grasp the reality of death. Your three children represent distinctive stages in developmental milestones, though these can also vary greatly. For instance, your six-year-old probably understands that a dead person cannot visit, eat pizza, tell stories, or do any of the normal things a grandmother might do. At six, the notion of irreversibility (a dead pet stays dead) is probably also pretty clear, while notions of universality (all living things die), causality (cancer can cause death), and continuity of connection (grandma will always be in my heart) are still coming into focus. Your older two likely understand these concepts more solidly, but as Ralph Waldo Emerson wisely observed, “Sorrow makes us all children again.” Loss can make us regress and require a review and acceptance of the hard facts of death all over again. Because these cognitive as well as emotional processes are so taxing, children often take a break from it. They play or otherwise seem to forget the death. But they will come back to it, and a pattern of episodic grieving is quite normal, so do not presume they are unaffected. They are just affected differently and come back to grieving as they feel able to tackle it again. The fact that there was no funeral service may make the reality of their grandmother’s death harder to absorb. Perhaps you and your children can create your own ceremony of remembrance either at her grave site or special place like a lake or park. This will allow each of them to express what this loss means to them and validate the ongoing connection you feel toward your mother and they to their grandmother. It is so important that you seek support in this. Family and friends, as well as grief specialists, can partner with you in your grief and support your children in theirs. The hospice that served your mother will know of resources near you; so will the staff at your children’s schools. The Hospice Foundation of America and the Dougy Center, have resources on grief and children. All of these partners together can help you learn more about children’s grief so you can move more confidently into the future. I think you can be optimistic about getting the help you need. By The Rev. Paul A. Metzler, DMin, an Episcopal priest and psychotherapist, is semi-retired following over 40 years of service as a clergy member, therapist, and hospice-based grief counselor. Journeys with Grief: A Newsletter to Help in Bereavement, copyright Hospice Foundation of America, 2019.