Grief characteristics according to developmental age and stage

Common grief behaviours exhibited by children

The sick child and the siblings may struggle with strong feelings of grief. Children experiencing grief can exhibit many different behaviours. These are normal expressions of grief and are not dysfunctional, unless they persist. Grief behaviours in children include:

Regression: The child may start to behave in a manner that is below their developmental stage. For example, a child that could previously dress themselves now needs help from an adult.

Change in behaviour: The child’s normal behaviour changes. For example,  a child that was previously reserved and quiet becomes very extroverted, loud and disruptive. Sometimes a loud child will become quiet and reserved.

Experience “pockets of sadness” sudden sadness then equally suddenly happy (also referred to as puddle jumping)

Underachieving or over achieving: The child who was previously excelling at school may start under achieving and a child who previously did not do well, becomes focused on excelling.

Suppression of emotions: The child may not express their feelings or emotions and it may seem that they do not miss their dead loved one.

Premature sexual relationships: The child who has experienced a loss is more vulnerable to becoming involved in sexual relationships from a young age.

It is important to recognise that these behaviours are often exhibited due to a need for attention but also because of a fear of the unknown and a fear of death.

Fear is a real thing when grieving

Fear is the body’s natural alarm for danger. When someone dies, it is natural for our bodies to be on “high alert.” It’s common for children and adolescents to have an increased sense of fear and anxiety after a death of someone close to them.

Questions that could indicate that the child is fearful include:

  • How will we live without the person who died?
  • Who will take care of us?
  • Will someone else die?
  • Where do people go after they die?
  • Will I die, too?

Children may develop fears about places or circumstances related to the death. They might get nervous or uncomfortable encountering reminders like driving by the hospital, hearing a siren, or going to the doctor. Night time can also bring up a lot of worries and fears after a death. Children often find it difficult to fall asleep or may wake up with nightmares.

When working with grieving children it is important to acknowledge that their fears are normal as this can help them from feeling overwhelmed, and reduce the risk of them not coping.

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.”

– C. S. Lewis, ‘A Grief Observed’.

Characteristics of grief according to cognitive developmental and age