Everyone grieves differently. People move through the stages of grief at their own pace. This is especially true among the different age groups. While adults and the elderly may have coping mechanisms in place, toddlers, children and teens do not have the same life experiences.
When you have lost a loved one, you may have immediate family members surrounding you who are experiencing the same sense of loss. When you know how to offer support to these people effectively, everyone benefits. Offering support to children, adults and the elderly begins with an understanding of their ideas of death, dying and separation.
Infants (Birth – 3)
Infants have no understanding of the process of death. Infants and very small toddlers understand that the person who has died is no longer present, but they do not understand why. Very young children may react to the absence they are experiencing with increased crying, changes in behavior, changes in sleeping or eating, and decreased responsiveness to stimuli.
It can be difficult to explain death to children who are this young. Many parents who believe in God and heaven will simply tell these young ones that their loved one has gone to heaven and won’t be coming home. People that do not believe in or follow a religion may explain the death in a different manner.
Preschool –Age (3 – 6)
This age can be the most difficult when it comes to explaining death and dying. Preschool-aged children often believe that death is temporary. They hold fast to the belief that the person can be brought back into their life. Death is often equated to sleeping.
Children aged three to six are very self-centered. They tend to believe that something they did caused the person to die or to become absent from their lives. This can lead to feelings of extreme guilt and sadness. Children of this age also may begin to worry about who will take care of them, and they may worry that another caregiver can or will die.
At this age, children do not have the vocabulary necessary to express their emotions. Children will act out, regress, or have difficulty sleeping. This, too, can be very difficult for caregivers to deal with.
School-Age (6 – 12)
During this stage of their lives, children understand that death is final. They may persist in thinking that the deceased is an angel, ghost, spirit or even a skeleton. At about age 10, children begin to understand that death happens to everyone and is not something that can be avoided. Children of this age may be extremely curious as to the details of the death and what will, or did, happen to the body. This curiosity can be uncomfortable for some adults.
Children of this age may experience a wide array of emotions. Children may become angry, anxious, sad, worried, or guilty. These young people may become worried about their own deaths. Although these children experience a wider range of feelings, they still have difficulty verbally expressing them.
Children in this age group will still have feelings of worry regarding who will take care of them. They may become insecure and clingy. These children may come to fear abandonment, and they may be concerned that they were, somehow, at fault for the death of their loved one.
Teenagers (13 – 18)
Children in this age group are more mature, and they have an understanding of death. Unfortunately, this understanding does not mean that coping skills are in place. Teenagers may act out or display reactive behaviors. Substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, and fighting are all common.
Again, these children may experience a wide array of emotions but have difficulty putting their feelings into words. When a loved one dies, teenagers often begin to question the tenants of their faith and their spirituality. Teens may also begin to question their understanding of the world.
Teenagers often isolate themselves from their parents and caregivers. This can make it difficult to help teenagers navigate the grieving process. This difficulty can increase the tension already being felt by the family. Parents and caregivers should take care to not become irritated when the teens choose to spend more time with friends than with family during the grieving process.
Adults have a clear understanding of death and dying. Adults understand why people die, and they know that is a natural part of life. Sadly, up to a third of adults will suffer detrimental effects on their mental and physical health. These ill effects increase the risk of heart disease and suicide. They also contribute to a variety of psychiatric and psychosomatic disorders.
After a death, adults move through the five stages of grief, often being able to understand the emotions that they are feeling. Unlike children, adults are able to put these feelings into words should they choose to do so. While some adults choose to deal with grief alone, others turn to support groups and grief counselors.
Once we arrive at a certain age, losses of friends and family occur with more rapidity. Because of this, the elderly typically react differently to death and dying than children and adults. The elderly may worry about financial security and have an extreme sense of loneliness.
The elderly may react to minor losses in a way that seems to be too large for the situation. People in this age group often begin to think of their own death when faced with the loss of a friend or loved one. This can lead to feelings of depression and deep sadness. People in this age group may seek to order their affairs after the death of a loved one.
There is nothing easy about losing a loved one. This is true no matter which age group you belong to. If you and your family have recently lost a loved one, understanding how your different family members understand death and the grieving process can help you offer the right amount of support. With that support, each member of your family will be able to move through the grieving process successfully.
Updated: October 2, 2014