The Impact of Grief on Children

The grief experience impacts all aspects of a child’s life. The manifestations listed below are typically intensified when there has been a sudden, unanticipated, or traumatic death. It is important to remember that there is no prescribed timetable for grief, and the reconciliation of grief depends on a vast variety of factors.

Children may or may not experience all the reactions below, and reactions can change over time. Remember to embrace the uniqueness of the child.

Emotional Experiences

There are many physical and emotional indicators children exhibit when grieving. These indicators are important to recognize so adults can empathize and be sympathetic towards the child’s feelings. Crying and sadness are the most frequently experienced feelings, though some children rarely cry. Societal beliefs instill an idea that males are “less emotional” and tend to cry less because they believe they need to be “strong.” Younger children often believe if they cry hard enough or long enough it might bring the deceased back. Children also cry because of others’ emotions. For instance, if the adults in their environment are crying frequently over a loss, children tend to cry frequently because they may feel it is expected of them. They may not understand exactly why they are crying. Crying decreases significantly over the period of a year, but sadness may still be present.

When children experience anxiety there are several things they can be worried about. First, they may be worried about losing another loved one. Second, they can fear their own death. Children feel most anxious during the year after the death of a loved one and may feel they are losing control and stability over their own lives due to the everyday changes the death might bring. Some children are afraid of leaving a surviving parent’s side if the other parent has died in fear of losing the surviving parent, too. Stress about the functioning of the family can cause anxiety as well. For example, if a mother dies her children might have anxiety about the father taking over the roles the mother assumed. Girls most frequently experience anxiety of this type because they often feel they are expected to fill in for their mother and complete her responsibilities. Anxiety can also stem from the children’s interactions with hospitals,EMS workers, the police department, and the fire department. Children often internalize feelings and questions about these interactions.  Anxiety symptoms decrease when the child has a strong and secure support system that provides accurate and age appropriate information.

Children may feel guilt because they believe there were broken bridges they did not get a chance to mend. Things left unsaid such as “I’m sorry” or “I love you.” Other children regret that they didn’t spend enough time with someone before they died. Consider the case of a child who has an argument with his father.  An accident occurs a week later in which the father dies. The child may think something along the lines of, “I must have made Daddy die because I argued with him and wished he were dead. It’s my fault!”

The child may not understand that there is no correlation between the argument and the accident, and younger children cannot separate themselves from the experience. Children can also internalize and misinterpret adult messages like “you’re the man of the house now,” or “don’t cry because it might upset your siblings.” These messages can be carried into adulthood and throughout life.

Children exhibit anger in a variety of different ways. Anger can cause aggression and irregular behaviors in grieving children. Some children are angry at the person who died for leaving, while others may be mad at God for taking their loved one away. Children who show signs of anger may be less likely to talk about their feelings. They tend to internalize their feelings of sadness and fear within.  Anger in children often leads to acting out for attention, lying, stealing, and aggressive behavior with others.

In her book, Life and Loss, Linda Goldman (2000) recommends building anger awareness by asking children:

    • What is anger?
    • How does your body feel?
    • What makes you angry?
    • How do you show anger?
    • What do you do when you are angry?

She states:

Children can then use new skills to incorporate their anger. One productive expression of anger is direct communication – talking to the person with whom you are angry and telling them why you are angry. Another way to express anger personally is by taking the angry energy when it can’t be expressed directly and using it in productive ways. Children can take their anger and work with it in appropriate ways.  They can vent angry energy by punching a pillow, building a project, using physical activity, role-playing, drawing, writing, or talking to a friend or adult  [2000, p. 57]

It’s important to help children understand the feelings “below” the anger and that anger is how the feelings may manifest themselves, though there are usually other feelings present like fear or frustration.

A variety of activities in this manual address anger and will provide additional skills to help teach children appropriate coping strategies.

Physical Reactions to Grief

Sleep disturbances:

    • Insomnia
    • Difficulty falling asleep and awakening
    • Desire to sleep the day away
    • Waking up multiple times during the night
    • Bad dreams

Changes in appetite:

    • Under-eating; loss of appetite
    • Overeating; binge eating
    • Thinking about food makes child nauseous

Increase or exaggeration of physical complaints:

    • Stomachaches
    • Empty feeling in body
    • Headaches and even migraines
    • Sensitive skin
    • Muscle weakness
    • Ringing in ears, dizziness
    • Heaviness of body
    • Dry mouth, tightness in throat
    • Fatigue
    • Tightness in chest, pounding heart

Behavioral Reactions

    • Crying
    • Clinging
    • Bed-wetting
    • Verbal attacks
    • Social withdrawal
    • Passivity
    • Very quiet/introverted
    • Feels unworthy of happiness
    • Absent mindedness
    • Sighing
    • Excessive touching, hugging
    • Self-destructive behaviors
    • Hyperactivity
    • Poor grades

Thought Patterns

    • Disbelief
    • Exaggerations in “magical thinking”
    • Inability to stay focused
    • Forgetfulness
    • Self-destructive thoughts
    • Impaired self-esteem
    • Confusion
    • Preoccupation
    • Difficulty making decisions
    • Idealization of past

Emotional Reactions

    • Fear: “What will I do without my sister?” “Will God punish me, too?” “Will my parents always be so sad?” “How can I remember everything to share about my sister when my brother gets older?”
    • Self-destructive thoughts: “If only…” “I could have…” “Why didn’t I…”
    • Anger: at the situation, at the one who died, at others for being happy, at God.
    • Yearning/desiring the lost loved one and the world that was.
    • Withdrawn or not sharing feelings with others because they don’t understand.
    • Helplessness/Hopelessness

Spiritual/Philosophical Reactions

    • Regardless of a child’s belief, there may be challenges to that system.
    • A child may be angry with God, which often creates guilt.
    • For those who believe in God, a child may ask, “Why did God let this happen?” “Why does God let me feel so bad?” or “Why didn’t God intervene?”

Common Feelings, Thoughts, and Behaviors of Grieving Children

Also from Linda Goldman’s book, Life and Loss (2000, p. 49)

    • Child retells events of the deceased’s death and funeral.
    • Child dreams of the deceased.
    • Child idolizes or imitates behaviors of the deceased.
    • Child feels the deceased is with them in some way.
    • Child speaks of the loved one in the present.
    • Child rejects old friends and seeks new friends who have experienced a similar loss.
    • Child wants to call home during the school day.
    • Child can’t concentrate on homework or class work.
    • Child bursts into tears in the middle of class.
    • Child seeks medical information on death of deceased.

 (c) American Hospice Foundation (2009)