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Children and Grief

By — NYU Child Study Center
Updated on Jul 9, 2010

Introduction

It is estimated that over 2 million children in the United States alone, or slightly more than 3%, experience the death of a parent before the age of 18. 1 Almost three-quarters of these are anticipated. The percentage is much higher when the statistics include experiences children usually have, such as death of grandparents, relatives, siblings, classmates, and pets. With tragedy occurring throughout the world, children are also exposed to loss of life many times over before they become adults. Thus it is not possible to shield children or protect them from this reality, nor should adults try. We have come to realize that in fact children do grieve and they can be helped with the grieving process.

Types of loss

The actual physical loss of a person is the primary loss experienced by the child. The meaning of the individual for the child will be felt in countless ways throughout the child's life. However, death is more than loss of the individual's physical presence. Secondary losses or changes impact the child in significant ways. These include:

  • Loss and change of self: Individuals are defined in many different ways. One's identity, self-confidence, sense and understanding of physical health, one's personality, and one's role in the family can be changed by a death.
  • Loss and change of security: One's sense of emotional and physical safety is often shaken. In addition, a change in financial security and lifestyle may accompany and add to aspects of one's life affected by the loss.
  • Loss and change of meaning: A restructuring and re-evaluation of goals and dreams is not uncommon. In addition, children and teens may re-examine and question their faith and even the desire to live and the ability to regain a sense of joy.

Factors affecting short and long term adaptation

A variety of factors influence a child's adjustment to death. These include:

  • Type of death. Any death is painful and a life-changing experience. However, when the death follows a prolonged illness, the family has the opportunity to prepare, plan for closure, be involved in the dying process, and perhaps put preventive mental health measures in place. The shock of a sudden death can make it more difficult to comprehend and acknowledge, resulting in different emotions. Certain causes, such as suicide, homicide, AIDS or drug-overdose still carry shame and embarrassment, further complicating grief and mourning.
  • Physical and emotional functioning of the surviving adults/parents. Children are reactive to their parent's response. If grief and sadness overwhelm a parent, the child may be scared by such intense emotion. Likewise, a parent who is in denial may confuse or limit a child's own expression of sadness. In addition, a child may be affected by a parent's physical or emotional availability.
  • Demographic characteristics of the child and family such as age, socioeconomic status. Children's ability to understand the full meaning of a death is limited by their age and cognitive understanding of death. Families may also be more or less limited in their ability to access help for immediate and long-term needs.
  • Child's personality and temperament. Children have their own individual styles of functioning and coping and at a time of crisis certain characteristics can be exaggerated and certain resources will be called upon. A cautious or anxious child may be more fearful for a time and a child who is practical may set about quickly re-establishing a routine.
  • Pre-existing risk factors such as prior mental illness, learning or social problems. Children with other problems may be more challenged in their ability to cope with a loss. They may have more difficulty understanding or managing the changes in their life or they may have poor social skills or strained social relationships with peers, making it more difficult for them to benefit from supportive friendships.
  • Family structure, functioning and relationship. All families have a particular style for functioning and relating. Those that have an open system of communication and a strong structure will provide comfort and assurance for children. Strained relationships, fighting, existing resentments or conflicts may interfere with the family's ability to band together.
  • Quality of the prior relationship. The type of relationship shared between two people prior to a death impacts how the loss is felt and the emotional recovery. Siblings, who fought in a normal fashion, may feel the loss of a playmate when a sibling dies but may also feel regret and blame. Likewise, a rebellious teen may feel guilty for harsh words said to a parent in a moment of anger.
  • Concurrent life stressors such as financial problems, difficult living situations, divorce or illness. Other existing stresses can make adjustment to a death more complex and leave the child and family feeling overwhelmed or empty of energy. Certain situations, such as a divorce or illness of other family members can also tax one's ability to cope and may add to a sense of futility or lack of security.
  • Support services, interventions and networks provided and available before, during and after the death. Because a child will feel that something is missing following a death it is helpful to have familiar people available to fill the void. Thc child may turn to a trusted counselor or someone else in their immediate network; a coach, a religious teacher. Some children may find it difficult to establish a strong personal connection with someone new. However if they are unable to rely on existing supports, children can be quickly helped by designating a particular individual to fill the role. 
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