How Children and Young People Develop a Concept of Grief or Loss
Infants and toddlers have little concept of death and would struggle to relate it to a concept. In their worlds adults come and go all of the time in their lives and the passing of a relative (unless a primary caregiver) would have little significance.
Young children, up to the age of about 5-7 years often have very little concept of death. They may see it as temporary, a form of sleep and so do not seem to understand the permanence or brevity associated with the passing. They may view a loss as something that can be overcome, that they will wake up or that time will resolve, so may make insensitive statements, such as asking when they will see them again, question the relevance to them or say they don’t care.
During middle childhood (8-12 years), children develop a more secure understanding of death as they grow. From the early part of this age range (and possibly earlier) they may show curiosity about the concept of death or the physical process of dying. Children during this time may develop a concept of the body stopping working and may then relate this to different forms of afterlife. They may have questions about death and so this is a topic that should not be avoided. They are likely to have noticed the impact of the loss on people, or their routine, and so may have questions or seek to understand how people are emotionally affected by someone they may not have met.
During adolescence young people develop a more mature concept of death and have almost an adult understanding of the concept. An important part of the process of grief and coping with loss is conversation. Young people often turn to their friends for comfort and support, so do not be frightened to encourage this. At the same time this should not be done to the detriment of having listening and supportive conversations with you, especially if they want to ask questions or understand the meaning or significance of the death.