Do children grieve? At what age is a child capable of grieving? How can we, as adults, help our children when some personal tragedy has occurred? These are all good questions that people frequently ask. Even though we were all children once, we have difficulty remembering what it was like to be a child, wholly dependent on the decisions of others. How children are affected by major events in their lives--for example, death or divorce--is something adults wonder about but are never certain they understand.

Do children grieve? In their desire to shield children from pain & unpleasantness, many adults want to believe that children adjust with relative ease to the death of a loved one. But over my career I have worked with thousands of children who have lost parents, siblings, and beloved grandparents, and there is no question in my mind that even young children do, indeed, grieve.

It is natural that parents want to protect their children from the effects of personal tragedy, but the best way to do this is to help them express their grief, not deny it.

It would be a great help to parents if kids would be open about their grief, but children generally do what they think their parents want them to do. If saying nothing about their grief is what they believe is expected of them, they will express it in other, less obvious ways, leaving the parents puzzled about their behavior and wondering what to do about it. If a major loss has occurred and a child seems to be "taking it all in stride," that may be the first sign of trouble.

What I have found is that children's grief, once it has been glossed over so they can "get on with their lives," begins to show itself in various ways. Seemingly unrelated behavioral problems begin to appear, such as fights at school, day-dreaming, or bad grades. Moodiness, fits of temper, overeating, or lack of appetite are other possible signs that a child is grieving.

It is natural that parents want to protect their children from the effects of personal tragedy, but the best way to do this is to help them express their grief, not deny it. Time and again, I have seen misbehaving youngsters--especially boys--brighten up and start responding with enthusiasm when they were allowed to talk about their losses and to express their grief openly. Girls can present a different problem. They may not show the aggression that boys show, but they are more likely to reveal their grief through dour moods, eating disorders, or even the loss of friendships. Their lives begin to return to normal once their grief has been acknowledged and they have been given ways to express it.

Far from protecting children, the steps that parents consciously or unconsciously take to minimize their children's grief may make it far worse than it has to be. Discouraged from saying how they really feel, excluded from family events (like funerals), left to pretend that nothing has happened, children feel isolated, abandoned, and angry. If their grief remains unresolved, it can have very long-term effects, even affecting their adult lives. I have worked with many adults suffering the effects of unresolved grief from childhood.

Bereaved children need the adults in their lives to understand that their grief is real and to show them how to express it constructively.

At what age is a child capable of mourning the death of a loved one? Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a well-known author and lecturer, puts it this way: "If a child is old enough to love, that child is old enough to grieve." After all, even very young children are able to feel the void in their lives when a loved one is gone. And even very young children will pick up the emotions of those caring for them, sensing that something is amiss. Parents may want to believe that there is no real grief there, but failing to deal openly with a child's loss can be, and often is, harmful to the child.

One of my most enjoyable experiences has been conducting a "little people's" group for pre-school children--some as young as 3--who have had parents or other loved ones die. Some arrive very sullen and distant. It has been a joy to see how their attitudes and behavior have changed for the better week after week, all because they have been able to say how they feel and to grieve the losses they have suffered at such a tender age.

If a child is old enough to love, that child is old enough to grieve.

Fortunately, most parents won't be faced with such serious issues as the death of another parent or other close family member. But just as we buy insurance against events we hope never happen, parents ought to prepare their children for the possibility of such a loss by teaching them about life and death.

For example, if a goldfish dies, don't just flush it down the toilet; use the dead fish as a way to talk about death. Discuss what that goldfish could do when it was alive and what it can't do now. Decide with your child what to do with the body of the fish, perhaps even having a small funeral for it. It's also a good idea to have a book dealing with death in your child's library. There are some splendid books available, including such classics as "Charlotte's Web," by E.B. White. It's especially good to spend time talking with your child about a book like this after you've read it together.

You might even consider taking your child to the funeral of someone he or she didn't know very well. There, your child could see from a safe distance what goes on when people die. If you do this, however, prepare your child for what will be happening there, and don't ask her to say or do anything she doesn't want to say or do.

Much as we hate to think so, death is an inevitable part of life. Much as we would like to, we cannot shield our children from grief and loss. When children face the loss of a loved one, parents have a responsibility to see that their kids are not made to fend for themselves. Grief is too important to be left to chance.

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