When Little Ones Grieve

Until recently most psychologists thought that toddlers were too young to grieve. They can’t even talk yet, they argued. And they certainly don’t understand the meaning of death or divorce.

It’s true. Toddlers don’t understand death. Young children are famous for making silly statements like, “I want to go visit Daddy in heaven.” Or asking, “Is Grandpa hungry in his grave?”

That’s because toddlers are just beginning to understand that people still exist when they can’t see them. In their young minds, when Mommy walks out of the room she literally disappears–only to magically reappear later. No wonder they don’t comprehend the finality of death. In fact, most children are 7 or 8 years old before they realize that death is permanent.

But that doesn’t mean toddlers don’t grieve. “A young child’s greatest fear is abandonment,” says Dr. Diane Komp, a pediatric oncologist at Yale University School of Medicine and author of the book Images of Grace (Zondervan). When a child loses a primary caregiver, such as a parent, through death or divorce they feel abandoned. Sadly, few parents realize that toddlers also grieve a parent’s extended absence. To them it’s as though that parent has died.

Even when there is no change in caregivers, a young child may grieve pain from abuse or neglect or pain from the death of a sibling or other relative. Children intuitively sense their parent’s pain. “Even the youngest child knows when their family routine is disrupted and those around them are upset,” say Helen Danielson and Kim Bushaw in Talking To Children About Death, a pamphlet available through the North Dakota State University in Fargo.

How can you recognize grief in a toddler? And how can you help them process their grief?

First, recognize that toddlers process grief differently than adults. They experience grief in their whole bodies, says Dr. Kyle Pruett of the National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Their Families. They can have trouble sleeping, lose their appetite, and lose interest in play. They may cry, have nightmares, act out, have a sad face or withdraw. Children who withdraw may ignore their parent or not want to be touched.

Second, know that children work through their grief over many months or even years as they grow and mature. “Don’t think they have stopped thinking about it just because they don’t talk about it,” cautions Ellen Goode, a children’s trauma specialist at Children’s Hospital Pittsburgh.

They may ask questions months or even years later. As children mature they may need to revisit their grief. They need the freedom to go over it again in the light of their growing capacity to understand what happened. They need to know it’s okay to ask questions. And know they will receive honest answers–not euphemisms like Grandpa went to sleep or took a long trip. “These can frighten a child,” cautions Goode.

Parents also need to come to terms with their own grief so they can respond to their child’s questions with sympathy, support, and honesty.

Most of all, spend time with your child. A grieving child needs extra attention, says Don F. Johnson, a specialist in childhood traumas at Northwestern College. Play with them and listen. “Play is the single most effective way to communicate with young children,” say Drs. Hemfelt and Warren of the Minirth-Meier Clinic. “What your child says in the course of imaginative play may well shock the socks off you.”

Originally published as Grief in Miniature, Christian Parenting Today, January/February 1997.

©Elizabeth Stalcup 1997

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