One of THE hardest things after my husband died was not only dealing with my grief, but watching my children try to grapple with theirs.
My youngest two kids were 4 and 6 years old; I had three coming-of-age boys (12, 14 and 16 years old) who needed their dad; a 17-year-old daughter who was her daddy’s girl through and through; and a just launched 19-year-old son.
I didn’t know much about the ways children grieve, but I learned early on children grieve differently.
Children grieve differently than adults.
Teens grieve differently than preschoolers.
Boys grieve differently than girls.
Even two kids the same age with the same loss can grieve differently because of personality, experience, their home environment or their relationship with the one who’s died.
Kids can suffer many kinds of loss – the death of a sibling, grandparent or parent; a chronic diagnosis for themselves or a family member; a devastating divorce; adoption loss; or even a move that takes them away from friends, school and the familiar.
As a parent navigating our kids through grief, discerning signs of our that grief can be difficult.
I’m sure to many outsiders, my kids looked pretty normal in the weeks and months following their dad’s death. My 6-year-old played around the neighborhood with friends like any other 6-year-old, but cried himself to sleep every night on the pillow next to mine. My teens just wanted to be normal and appear normal, especially among their friends and out in public, but their pain was always just under the surface.
Kids tend to box up grief and unpack it in spurts, unlike adults who constantly process the loss. They can mask pain because it’s too big to understand or put into words. They can stuff grief because the emotions are too hard and too overwhelming.
As parents, we need to discern our kids’ signs of grief to help them through. Because this is certain — if our children don’t grieve now on their terms, grief will come back later on its terms.
7 Ways Children Grieve
1.Asking the same questions over and over.
I think my 4-year-old cried a thousand times those first two years, “I miss Daddy!” It was usually from the backseat where I could easily respond. But sometimes it happened at the most inopportune times — like the very moment we went onstage to join my oldest daughter who’d just won a state scholarship program. As confetti streamed down and cameras flashed, my littlest clung to me and cried that she missed her dad.
I’d promised myself from the beginning that no matter how many times she cried or asked questions, I would stop and respond.
I never expected them to be over it because toddlers and preschoolers can’t fathom the permanency of loss. They need the reassurance of our gentle and consistent response. Each time we answer their questions or hug them when they cry, we help them process emotion they can’t even put into words.
2. Embarrassment about grief.
Older children often want to hide their loss from friends or teachers to be “normal” and escape the grief bubble.
This became razor clear weeks after Dan died when our church asked us to participate in a sermon illustration. People were to hold up signs showing the hard they’d gone through and then on the back how God had met their need.
My teen boys wanted none of it.
Life had imploded for them and they were reeling from grief, but the last thing they wanted to do was share it openly with the world.
We need to give our kids permission to share on their terms as they’re comfortable, but also make sure we’re starting conversations about loss at home where vulnerability is safe.
3. Irritability, anger or complaining.
This one’s tricky because it can be hard to tell the difference between normal kid and teen behavior and grief.
We know grief can trigger anger and that can surface as irritability with siblings or complaining about school stuff.
I tried to be a student of my child. I considered my kids’ personalities before loss against their current behavior and toggled between giving consequences at times and grace other times when I felt like it came from grief.
4. Withdrawal from activities.
When my son’s high school basketball coach moved, he announced he wouldn’t play that season. It was one more loss after his dad’s death. I knew he loved basketball, I wanted him to stay active in extracurriculars and I struggled with whether to push him or let him sit out the season.
A friend gave me some perspective at just the right time. This son wasn’t withdrawing from everything because he was still super active at church, with classes and with friends. So I decided to let him have the space to let this go until he felt ready to jump back in.
5. Forgetfulness & distraction.
If you’ve ever gone through grief or loss, then you’re well acquainted with the fog of grief.
While the rest of the world marches on, it’s like a bubble has descended that keeps your mind swirling with thoughts and worry and pain and loss. It’s nearly impossible to shake though it will lift over time as grief is processed.
It’s called cognitive grief and I saw it clearly in one of my teens’ standardized test scores. They had dropped pretty dramatically, though his grades held steady. I reassured my son it wasn’t him, that it was an outward sign of very real emotions taking up brain space and that the fog would lift.
Loss ushers in all kinds of new fears for kids. My kids worried that something might happen to me or that they might die young like their dad.
Some kids have separation anxiety, nightmares or general anxiety that shows up as stomach aches or headaches. Sometimes seeing something that reminds them of loss will trigger an anxiety attack. That happened for us when an ambulance was called several years after my husband’s death, but it brought my youngest back to the ambulance that had taken her dad away forever.
While it’s important to help our kids separate reasonable from unreasonable fear, we need to listen to their fear and pray with them about their worries.
7. Growing into grief.
There was no way my four-year-old could understand the full extent of her loss when it happened. But as she’s grown, she’s seen dads bringing flowers to their daughters after the recital and take them to the father-daughter dance. Each stage makes that grief resurface as she realizes all that a dad is and does.
Our kids will continue to grow into their grief. We need to let them know it’s okay when that grief resurfaces and its okay to feel sadness lacing even the best events in life.
Lynda Collins says
I am a licensed counselor who specializes in grief and trauma and this is an awesome article about helping children grieve and it is also healing to the mom too.
I have a question maybe you could write about, as you always have such good advice and insights. My husband and I had to put off getting married for several years while everyone we loved was ill and dying. I lost both parents and he lost his sister, his aunt and slightly later, his dad. Now we have children of our own, but our kids grieve the loss and lack of grandparents. (The one remaining has Alzheimers). Meanwhile we feel like we are living in the valley of the shadow of death. Because everyone we would love to see our kids is gone, we are constantly reminded that we too will die and it overshadows us as we worry for our own kids. We don’t want them to go through the pain we did, although eventually this is inevitable. I know Jesus is with us, but I don’t think it can be right to be living in this shadow all the time. How do we shake it off? We have to be free to live to the full now.
Lisa Appelo says
Suzy, I have much to respond but I’m praying and mulling through. Such a good question and thank you for opening up to share it.
Karen Smith says
I love this article. My husband hasn’t died (yet) but he is severely disabled and my children have and continue to go through a grieving cycle. One day I was looking through pictures and I found one of my husband pushing my big kids in swings. I thought it would be sweet for my youngest to see that her dad used to be able to do those things. Wow! That was a big mistake. It made her grief so raw because she has no memory of her dad doing those things for her. It was a loss. There are losses that pop up from time to time that I am not prepared for. They catch me by surprise. Even in the moment, I always give affection. We might not be able to discuss it at that time but I always come back to that moment later for discussion. And I do love that children can feel deeply intense and sad one moment and two minutes later than can be back doing normal life. I’ve wished often I could do that. This is a great article Lisa! Thanks for sharing!
Lisa Appelo says
Karen, we never experienced anticipatory grief but I can only imagine how excruciating it is. You are spot on that loving them through with affection and space to listen is huge. Thank you for sharing so vulnerably.
Maryjo Landwehr says
Pia Lischke says
Lisa this is such a great article! I’ve muddled through with four children who were 8-17 when their dad died suddenly 12 years ago. They’re all doing well now but we’ve been through a lot together and I recognize many of the faces of grief from our own experience. I don’t think I’ve ever read an article on this topic and it would have been so helpful! The fact that it was written by someone who has parented through it means so much. Thank you for sharing your experience for those who are following behind on this hard path.
Lisa Appelo says
Wow, Pia, I’d love to hear your insight as well. We couldn’t prepare and it’s been grace that God gave me some wisdom and had others give me their wisdom. Meeting adults who’d lost a parent early was so helpful — I usually asked all manner of questions on what helped and what they remember. Thank you for your kind words. I know time doesn’t erase the loss, it simply shifts as life grows around it for our kids.
Betsy de Cruz says
This is such a helpful topic for mothers. As I read your post, I’m reminded of my then 5-year brother’s reaction when my dad left my mom. (I myself was 11 and went through many of the things you mention. I remember what it was like to come home from school and find mom crying in her bedroom.) So helpful for us as parents to realize we need to give our children space to grieve. So hard to do as we grieve ourselves. Thank you for this comforting balm.
Thank you for your willingness to use such pain as an avenue for healing for yourself and others. My dear dad passed last year and the hardest thing, after trying to sift through my own pain, is watching my teenage boys process his passing. They were very close with him and the grief has been drowning at times. Your insight is beautiful, helpful and timely, thank you. May God continue to heal your family as you comfort others with the comfort He provides.