How do I know if it's grief?
Children and youth grieve differently than adults. Young children may not be able to describe how they feel and their age may affect how they react. A child that loses a grandparent may not seem bothered until an important holiday comes and the grandparent isn't there.
A child or youth may show they are grieving by the way they behave. They might:
- becoming very quiet or very talkative
- act out, be disruptive, have temper tantrums
- have a hard time playing with friends or doing schoolwork
- cling to people they trust
- go back to old behaviours like wetting the bed
- talk as if the person they’ve lost is still present
- act like the person they’ve lost
- worry a lot about the future, their health and the health of loved ones
- carry around pictures or items that remind them of someone they’ve lost
- try hard to look like they’re okay or normal
- seem not very bothered by the loss
- turn to alcohol, other drugs or other risky behaviour if in teens
Their behaviour may seem odd or upsetting. The most important thing is to help them feel safe and secure.
Grief at different ages
Infants may feel grief but not understand things like death, illness or loss. They may show signs that look like separation anxiety such as:
- looking for the person they've lost
- clinging to caregivers
- temper tantrums
Preschool children may understand that someone isn't around anymore, but not concepts like death. It may look like the child doesn't care or isn't bothered by the loss. They might also believe that their own thoughts, actions or wishes caused the loss. The child may use pictures or other items to feel close to a loved one that left or passed away.
Age 5 to 9 may try to make sense of death or loss. That can lead to belief in things like they can "catch" death or it can cause a lot of fears, like the fear of dying. They may take words literally, so if you say a loved one is "gone," the child might be angry that no one is looking for them. Children at this age may also still believe that their thoughts, actions or wishes caused the loss.
Age 9 to 12 may have the same general understanding or death and loss as an adult, but may not be able to express these thoughts and feelings. They may find comfort in family and cultural beliefs and values.
Teens may understand death as an adult would, but have a hard time with bigger questions, like the meaning of life and death. They may feel at odds with their desire to be independent and their desire to help the family through a loss. Teens may also try hard to look "normal" to fit in with their peers. They may hide their feelings or avoid them by keeping very busy. Some teens turn to risky behaviours like alcohol or other drugs, thinking they can't be harmed and this is a way to "test" death.