Do young children experience grief? Dr. Alan Wolfelt is a grief counselor who says, “Any child old enough to experience love is old enough to grieve.” Even though they will show their grief differently than adults do, very young children do feel loss. Here’s how you can help a young child grieve.
Youngsters ages three through six (and possibly as late as age eight) do not understand that death is permanent and irreversible. Therefore, don’t be surprised if they ask about the deceased and say, “Will Grandma be back tomorrow?” You may need to explain over and over again that Grandma died and she is not coming back.
Do not be surprised if the child is crying one moment and laughing or playing the next. According to the Child Mind Institute, “children cope [with death] differently than adults, and playing can be a defense mechanism to prevent a child from becoming overwhelmed.”
If you are involved in the daily care of the young child, know that it’s best to keep them to their usual routine as much as possible. Structure and predictability are important to children in general, and even more so during times of stress.
Also, young children may not have the words to express how they’re feeling. It may be helpful to offer to let them draw or re-enact events. Or, you can look through a scrapbook or photos on your phone and invite conversation by saying, “Who’s that?” or “What do you remember about [name of person who died]?”
You may notice that the child is frightened or confused by seeing adults crying or grieving. You can offer comfort by saying, “Your mommy is crying because she’s sad that Grandpa died. It’s OK for adults to cry when they’re sad.”
Death is a difficult subject for adults and children alike. Should a death in your circle of friends or family arise, we hope these tips will prepare you to help a young child grieve. Thank you for Caring Well.