CENTERS’ PIECE: Children need adults to help them grieve after lossElizabeth Buchanan received her Master’s degree from UTPB in 2006 and has been with Centers since 2006. She enjoys working with children, teens and adults in individual, family and marital therapy.

Grief is a natural part of life as losses occur. Some losses that children are dealing with include when parents divorce, when a best friend moves away, physical health issues of disease or disability, moving to a new city and the loss of friends, death of a family member, pet, friend or someone else close to them. Children do not naturally know how to respond to losses and need to have healthy guidance and role modeling from adults around them.
Understanding how children grieve. Young children grieve in increments — that is, they may show grief for a few minutes and then be happily playing afterward. Young children do not have the vocabulary to express their grief.
Regression. Regressive behaviors can occur when children are grieving. Some examples of those are wetting the bed, baby talk, needing to be rocked or held more, difficulty separating from significant others, and needing to sleep in a parent’s bed.
Developmental stages and grief. Children ages 2-4 are self-centered and lack an understanding cognitively of death or loss. They may ask the same questions over and over. Their response to being told that someone has died may be to ask when that person is coming back over to their house. They respond to grief intensely, but have a more brief experience. They do not see death as permanent.
Ages 4–7 are learning more about the world around them and developing more of a sense of independence. They are learning more vocabulary and enjoy fantasy play. They may still see death as reversible. They may have a feeling of responsibility because of wishes or thoughts (for example, being angry with a parent, wishing not to be around the parent, and now the parent is gone). This age child will also ask a lot of questions repetitively as if nothing has happened.
Ages 7-11 are concrete thinkers so see things as black and white, no grey. They may view death or loss as punishment. They begin to see death as final. This age will ask more questions repetitively and want more detail. They have more of an ability to understand grief and be able to mourn their loss and may withdraw from friends. All ages may have changes in their eating and sleeping patterns, daycare/school problems, irritability/angry play.
How should adult role models respond? Adults should do active listening, have presence with their children and keep consistent routines. Play is the outlet for grief of children ages 2-7 and special books to read with them are helpful. Play can include use of drawings and stories for ages 4-7. Tell the child that nothing they thought or did caused the loss.
Reassurance and nurturing are important for all age groups. Give short answers to grief questions for ages 2-4. For ages 4-7, talk about the loss and give them permission to ask questions. For ages 7-11, encourage talking about the loss, explain options and allow for choices and alone time. Allow for physical outlets for all ages. It is okay for older children to see adults grieve alongside them; however, it is important for adults to get any adult support they need and not put children in that role.
Children need adults to help them grieve after loss with understanding, acknowledgement, and validating the child. Sharing the loss and talking about good memories is part of healthy role modeling.