In the past, children were thought to be miniature adults and
were expected to behave as adults. It is now understood that there are
differences in the ways in which children and adults mourn.
Unlike adults, bereaved children do not experience continual and
intense emotional and behavioral grief reactions. Children may seem to
show grief only occasionally and briefly, but in reality a child's grief
usually lasts longer than that of an adult. Mourning in children may
need to be addressed again and again as the child gets older. As the
surviving child grows, he or she will think about the loss repeatedly,
especially during important times in his or her life, such as going to
camp, graduating from school, getting married, or giving birth to his or
her own children. This longer period of grief is due to the fact that
the child's ability to experience intense emotions is limited.
A child's grief may be influenced by his or her age, personality,
stage of development, earlier experiences with death, and his or her
relationship with the deceased. The surroundings, cause of death, family
members' ability to communicate with one another and to continue as a
family after the death can also affect grief. The child's ongoing need
for care, the child's opportunity to share his or her feelings and
memories, the parent's ability to cope with stress, and the child's
steady relationships with other adults are also other factors that may
Children do not react to loss in the same ways as adults.
Grieving children may not show their feelings as openly as adults.
Grieving children may not withdraw and dwell on the person who died, but
instead may throw themselves into activities (for example, they may be
sad one minute and playful the next). Often families think the child
"doesn't really understand" or has "gotten over" the death. Neither is
true; children's minds protect them from what is too powerful for them
to handle. Children's grieving periods are shortened because they cannot
think through their thoughts and feelings like adults. Also, children
have trouble putting their feelings about grief into words. Instead, his
or her behavior "speaks" for the child. Strong feelings of anger and
fears of abandonment or death may show up in the behavior of grieving
children. Children often play death games as a way of working out their
feelings and anxieties. These games are familiar to the children and
provide safe opportunities to express their feelings.