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Childhood Grief

Many people encounter death during their childhood. When George Dickinson asked college students to write about their first experiences with death, he found the average age of this first loss to be 7.95 years. Most of these deaths involved the death of a grandparent or a pet.

Grief is an individual affair, no matter if the griever is an adult or a child. Although there are aspects of grief that are common to all people, it is important to recognize that children do not express their sadness over loss in the same manner as do adults. Further, it is necessary to take into consideration the child's developmental concept of death and who has died. A child younger than five, for example, may have a difficult time understanding why grandma is not coming back. Regardless of who it is, death involves not only the loss of a person who was meaningful to the child but also a relationship that would have evolved over time as the child changes into an adolescent and adult. Thus, grieving and understanding the nature of the loss may be a lifelong process for children, especially when they lose a parent.

Children do not typically hold onto their grief over a sustained period as do adolescents and adults. Upon learning the news of a death, they may cry, especially if others around them are doing so, but then return to other activities (e.g., watching television or riding a bicycle). They also may refuse to talk about the person who has died, or show a lack of interest in what is going on around them. Cycling in and out of grief, however, may be a very adaptable way of handling the intense emotions that will overwhelm children. As they have no road map from prior experience, the situations involving death may be especially frightening, especiallyif distressed adults emotionally abandon them. Some children may hide their grief in order to protect their loved ones. Even with a limited concept of death, very young children understand loss when their routines are disrupted and when the person who has died is no longer there. Thus, very young children may play out their grief by insisting on enacting the familiar behavioral patterns they had engaged in with the deceased, such as a daily walk around the street. It also is not unusual for children to regress (as in toilet training), show aggression toward others, have difficulty sleeping, show fear of the dark, or show a lack of interest in activities that formerly were very appealing. In contrast to children, adolescents grieve very deeply and with prolonged intensity. Adolescents appear to find solace with their peers and may reject the well-intended help of adults.

Bereaved children do not necessarily have long-term problems. One of the most important lessons learned from the Child Bereavement Study undertaken by Phyllis Silverman and William Worden of Harvard University is that many children who have lost a parent show positive psychological adjustment a year or two after their loss. These researchers found that it was important for children to maintain the connection to the deceased person through mementos, dreams, or visits to the cemetery. These children also reconstruct their relationship throughout their development, with the aid of their memories and feelings, and in an open environment where it is possible to talk about who was lost.

Additional topics

Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 3Death - The Development Of A Concept Of Death, Children Who Are Dying, Childhood Grief, Helping Children With Death Experiences