As children grow and mature, their understanding about death and grief continues to evolve. Children experience grief differently at each developmental stage. As a child ages and enters a new developmental stage, they may begin to have new realizations about the death and may actively grieve the loss all over again. This can be very upsetting to the adults in the child’s life as well as to the child themselves. However, this is a very normal process.
For example, a boy at age 4 experiences the death of his father and he does not understand the concept of death being forever or permanent. He sees the death as temporary and is always talking about when his dad is no longer dead or when he comes home. No matter how many times he is told about death being forever, he continues to believe his dad will return. As the boy grows into his next developmental stage around the age of 6, he may come to understand that death is indeed permanent and final. All of a sudden he may be actively grieving his father’s death, as he now understands what death means to him—that his father will not be returning home.
His mother and other adults may be perplexed about why the boy is grieving like his father just died, but to the boy, his father did just die (at least in his level of understanding). For grieving children, their grief is often like a wave. One minute they are doing fine, not really grieving at all. The next minute a grief wave hits them and they are actively grieving and often grieving hard. The good news is that the wave of grief will subside after some time goes by…it may be minutes or days in length.
Some children have these grief waves throughout their childhood, especially as they hit a new developmental stage or level of understanding/comprehension. The adults in their lives can help by being supportive of the child as he or she experiences a grief wave.
As children mature they also come to understand that death means that their loved one will miss all of the important events that are yet to come in their life. Graduation from high school or college, proms, weddings, and births of their own children can all be very emotional. If they have a parent who has died, Mother’s Day or Father’s Day can be very hard…as it is a reminder of what they have lost. There can be a regrieving process during these life milestones. Read more about grief reactions in children and teens.