When Children Grieve

March 19, 2009

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.

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