Coping With Grief at Different Ages

Age makes a tremendous difference in how grief affects us. Understanding how grief manifests in people differently at various stages in their lives can help you determine how best to reach out and provide the help that is needed.

Coping strategies vary drastically depending on the child’s developmental stage.

Infants (0 to 3)
Children this young are not yet able to understand death. However, they can sense feelings of grief in the adults around them, and they may imitate or soak up those emotions. Babies can also react to the loss of a caregiver with increased crying, listlessness, and changes in sleeping and eating habits. Young children may revisit the experience later as they go through different developmental stages.

Young children (3 to 6)
At this age, children may become curious about death, but they still aren’t able to understand it as final. They may internalize it, believing they caused the death by misbehaving. Regression, or returning to younger behavior like bedwetting and baby talk, is common, as is fear of abandonment.

School-aged children (6 to 12)
These children are old enough to understand the finality of death, but they may not be able to put their emotions into words. Instead, some school-aged children complain of stomachaches or other physical ailments. They are also highly interested in the biological aspects of death and may ask a lot of questions.

Although they are between childhood and adulthood, teenagers have the same capacity for understanding grief as adults. This can cause confusion about how to react – whether to exhibit sadness and emotional neediness like a child, or act brave and strong like an adult. Many teenagers fear appearing weak or childish, so they may be reluctant to ask adults or peers for help.

As a result, many teenagers try to bottle up their feelings instead of airing them. Additionally, grief can cause teenagers to struggle with their own feelings of invincibility. The death of a loved one may also cause them to question their spiritual beliefs and their understanding of the world.

Adults who are coping with grief tend to re-evaluate their lives, look for meaning in the world, and contemplate their own deaths. Some adults will manage their grief by preoccupying themselves, while others may temporarily lose their ability to function.

Normal symptoms of grief, such as irritability, restlessness, changes in personality, and numbness or sadness, tend to lessen in about six months, although the entire grieving process can go on for two or more years.

Grief manifests a bit differently in the elderly than it does in the middle-aged. At this time in their lives, the elderly are no longer focused on looking forward to future milestones, but are spending much more of their attention reflecting on the past.

With age, the number of deaths in a person’s life increases, and facing these multiple losses in a brief period can be overwhelming. In many cases, the elderly are already dealing with losing their occupation, familiar home environment, and physical and possibly mental capacity. Sometimes, older people may become so overwhelmed they find themselves unable to grieve.

Regardless of age, grief is something that must be worked through. There is no way to speed up the process, but having a healthy support network can make a huge difference.

~Nicole Krueger, 2009