By Vanessa Rasmussen, © 2004, All rights reserved.

Children are often thought of as invisible when it comes to grief. But in actuality, children grieve just as much as adults. Each child's journey through the grief process is unique. There are no rules on how it should be done correctly.

Children express their grief differently depending on their age. An infant will be fussy and cry more than normal. A child age six or under will ask for details over and over, and may alternate between tears and going out to play as if nothing had happened. Children ages six to 12 have a more mature understanding of death, but may regress, and need a great deal of reassurance. A teenager has an adult understanding of death, but has fewer coping skills. The teenagers' responses are superimposed on the emotional rollercoaster of adolescence.

Preschool children usually see death as temporary and reversible - a belief reinforced by cartoon characters that "die" and "come to life" again. Children between five and nine begin to think more like adults about death, yet they still believe it will never happen to them or anyone they know. Any loss is a death process to a child. The loss of a pet, a divorce, and a move are all traumatic events and if a family member has died these losses may cause re-grieving.

Once children accept death, they are likely to display their feelings of sadness on and off over a long period of time, and often at unexpected moments. The surviving relatives should spend as much time as possible with the child, making it clear that the child has permission to show his or her feelings openly or freely.

Younger children believe they are the cause of what happens around them. A young child may believe a parent, grandparent, brother or sister died because he or she had once "wished" the person dead. The child feels guilty because the wish "came true."

Here are some warning signs to watch out for:

  • Prolonged period of depression in which the child loses interest in daily activities and events
  • Loss of appetite
  • Irregular sleeping habits, sleeplessness
  • Constant fear of being alone, the child fears that he/she will be left all alone
  • Long term denial of the death or avoidance of grief
  • Persistent infantile behavior, acting younger than his/her age
  • Repeated talks of wanting to join the dead person or pet
  • Social withdrawal
  • Poor academic performance

These warning signs indicate that professional help may be needed. A child and adolescent psychiatrist can help the child accept the death and assist the survivors in helping the child through the grieving process.

Talking is the most effective tool for helping children and adolescents deal with grief.. Creative activities such as dramatic play, art, dance, music, activity and rituals help to express grief and loss.

With love, support and a healthy atmosphere most people, including children, are resilient and can learn to live with loss of a close person.

Copyright 2001, 2004. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article in whole or in part without written or verbal permission is strictly prohibited. For information about reprinting this article, contact the copyright owner: Vanessa Rasmussen, Ph.D, Starting a Day Care Center,