What Young Children Can Teach Us About Grief (and Life)

If you’re a parent, when someone close to you dies, one of the first thoughts will inevitably be ‘how will my child handle this?’ In many cases the reassuring and slightly bewildering answer may well be ‘an awful lot better than you think’.

Mindfulness has been all the rage for a while now but really as with many trendy new fads, it’s something that has been around for an age – and children (often) have it nailed. If mindfulness is about living in the moment then they tend to lead by example.

Of course as with all broad brush assumptions, assessments and predictions one person’s experience of watching a child handle grief will be different to the next. All children are different, just as all people are different.  However, in so many cases it seems that young children deal with grief in the same way they often deal with life. Head-on then move on. Without doubt, it’s not that simple. When is it? But so many parents are astonished by how seamlessly, even sensitive children, compute and cope with grief.

A mum described listening to her eight-year-old daughter and her friend suddenly mention recent losses in the midst of play.

“My great grandma died,” the little girl said.

‘Yeah, my granddad died too,” came the little boy’s reply.

The adults in the next door room held their breath. Was this the moment all the unseen emotions would come tumbling out? Nope, that was the end of the conversation. The children moved on with shifting Playmobil characters around and instructing each other on what the plastic toys were doing.

The little girl had always been of a deeply caring nature and had a habit of getting upset even about short separations. Her mum was terrified about the impact the loss of her great grandma would have. For the first couple of weeks, the loss ignited the odd question about who could die and when. Gentle, but honest answers were issued and the little girl tended to be reassured and move on. Now she mentions her great grandmother when something prompts a memory as easily as she might mention a favourite TV show.

The conversations tended to be short and quickly forgotten for the next subject.

In the case of the little boy, also aged eight – he was very close to his grandfather and, his parents had thought that when the inevitable happened, their son would be crushed. As it turned out, the child just took it all in his stride. Of course his parents wondered if he was hiding his feelings, if he was just trying to be brave or if the emotions would all come tumbling out at a later date. Months on that hasn’t happened. He too will talk openly about his granddad.

He asked a few questions about practicalities in the early days and, again, his parents always did their best to be honest and ensure he knew he could always talk about it. The conversations tended to be short and quickly forgotten for the next subject.

With advice and support from their chosen local funeral directors, the little boy and his six-year-old cousin were allowed to carry out their wish of being at the funeral. They clutched their parents’ hands throughout, looked a little concerned at times about the tears being shed around them, then proceeded to fill the pub gathering afterwards with the shrieks of their giggles as they played – just as they normally would. Exactly as Granddad would have wanted.

There’s no right or wrong way to deal with grief, but not being afraid to talk about what has happened, not ignoring the elephant in the room by being too scared to ask a friend how they’re doing, daring to shed a tear and then continue living life, allowing the exchange of easy memories – just as many young children seem able to do, is surely not a bad place to start.

  • Advice and support around grief, including specific advice on helping a child understand death and deal with grief, can be found via the NHS and Cruse Bereavement Care
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