The Grief of Children – Connection as the Way Through

Dr. Vanessa Lapointe, R. Psych.
Wishing Star Founder

Today I attended the memorial service of a dear little 3-year old boy. As I sit with my own grief at the un-natural and horrendously sad loss of a life so young, I am reminded of what it means to be a child and have to grieve the ultimate loss.

There were many children amongst the hundreds that gathered to honor the life of my little friend today. You could see in their different faces the developmental faces of grief. The very young (2 and younger) were clearly not aware of the circumstances under which we were gathered except perhaps to sense the emotions of their parents. The preschool children were more aware of the sadness around them and could be heard asking their parents “why is it a sad day”… “why are the people crying mama?” Some of these little ones had some tears and then lapsed back into their usual playful selves and then maybe had some more tears. The school aged children (5+) were much more aware of what had happened and the purpose of the occasion. Most sat snuggled very near to their parents, and many had tear-stained faces. 

All of these different faces of grief coincide with our different understanding of death through the ages. The very young infant and toddler would not understand death except to experience the “absence” of someone known and loved. The preschool aged child perhaps has a passing concept of death but it remains elusive and abstract. As the child approaches the age of 5 or so the child comes to terms with the finality of death but knows it in a depersonalized sense – something that could not happen to them. The school-aged child knows with intensity the finality of death and so grieves more intensely and obviously upon learning of someone’s passing.

For each individual child, regardless of age, the grief process will unfold in a manner unique to that child. There can be intense frustration at not being able to restore a tangible connection with the person who died, which may manifest as behavioral challenges. There can be a heightened level of anxiety at the loss of connection represented by death, which may lead to questions about loss in general, include loss of those still alive. This anxiety may disrupt sleep, daycare, and school routines, and can also present as shortened tempers, meltdowns, inattention, and hyperactivity. There can even be withdrawal where a child recedes from the world around them and sits heavy-hearted with their sadness.

Regardless of the age of the child, the nature of the loss (sudden, long illness, elderly), or the child’s relationship with the loved one who has passed (sibling, parent, grandparent, friend), children look to their “big people” to find their way through the grief process. Big people – those who care for children including parents, teachers, aunts, uncles, grandmas, grandpas, and care providers – serve as the compass point for the grieving child, showing them the way, making room for all of the big feelings that come with grief, and responding with patience, understanding and ultimately connection as the many faces of grief present, including those that feel very behavioral in nature. In the reassuring and enduring embrace of their big people, children can be walked to a sense of enduring connection with their loved one who has passed, where the frustration and worry is taken care of, and they can then find a way to make sense of and come to a place of emotional rest with this death.

Today, the big people in the life of my little friend stepped into their roles so admirably with his sister and with his many little friends. The memorial was full of rituals to help them make sense of the loss, including a “laying of hearts” in the casket but only after the little felt heart cut-outs were rubbed on each attending person’s funny bone because my little friend was hilarious, on their arm muscle to remember his strength, on their nose in case his gets itchy, and finally on their hearts so that he will feel surrounded by love. There was music and story time, pictures and videos, and the retelling of many humorous and touching moments that form the enduring memories which live on. After the service portion concluded, all of the children were invited to a circle time in my little friend’s favorite park where they were going to send off a sky full of balloons to heaven. Although the loss is so sad, these adults – his parents and all of his big people including other family members, friends, and teachers – are doing such a brilliant job of acting as the compass point for all of these children, of finding the source of enduring connection to my little friend even in the face of loss, of charting the course, of finding a way through. These are big people who “just know” and in the arms of whom all of the grieving children are sure to find much comfort. And in what is perhaps the greatest gift of growing up children, these big people are indeed walking themselves to their own place of emotional rest and enduring connection as they step into this role for their children.

Dedicated to the lasting memory of RDL – you were surely an angel among us, and of course, still are. In the wise words of one of your loved ones “Love is immortal.” :) xo

Love is Immortal

Love is Immortal

This blog posting is not a form of psychological counselling, advice, therapy, or assessment and should not be used as such by any individual. This blog posting is provided only as an article intended to encourage thought and discourse. For specific psychology related services, please contact an appropriate healthcare provider.