Grief Series Part 2: Grief in Children

By Cindy Roe and Marie-Lise Baroutjian

NY Project Hope is a crisis counseling program that provides support and resources to help people cope with the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.  

smiling boyGiven the pervasiveness of the Covid pandemic, people everywhere have experienced loss- and for many, multiple losses- in a wide variety of new and unexpected ways over the past year.  And while the price of any loss can include feeling distraught, overwhelmed, angry, or any other emotion that humans naturally feel and express during the grieving process, our ability to heal emotionally and move forward in our lives afterward is equally normal.  However, an important first step in order for us to get there is having a better understanding of not only our own grief relating to all that we’ve lost, but the grieving process as well.  In this second installation of our 5-part series on pandemic-related grief and loss, we’ll be building from what we learned regarding the grief process from part 1 of this series by discussing aspects of grief during early, middle, and late childhood.

To begin to deepen our understanding of what grief looks like for children, we’ll start with a brief overview of 4 inter-related concepts that a child must be able to understand in order to fully grasp the meaning of death or other significant losses.  In considering the developmental milestones that most children achieve as they progress through their formative years, this mature conceptualization of loss is usually acquired around the age 10 or 11. (A caveat to remember, however, is that each child is a unique individual, so be mindful that this information is merely a guide).

  • Universality-with regards to death, children must comprehend that death is something that happens to everyone. In the context of other pandemic-related losses, this equates to understanding that the pandemic affected nearly everyone in some way.
  • Permanence-children must also understand the finality relating to death. Translated to the pandemic, they should be able to understand that there will likely be some aspects of their post-pandemic life that will be very different for quite some time- think social distancing and mask wearing rules in school.
  • Causality-for death, understanding that someone died for a specific reason. In terms of the pandemic, realizing the severity of the virus, how it can make us really sick, and that some people died from it.
  • Personal Mortality-This relates to causality in that children will grasp the fact that they too will one day die, and that can happen to them if the get Covid.

 Early Childhood (Ages 2-5):

For very young children, even though their vocabulary grows exponentially during these formative years, their ability to comprehend complex abstract concepts, like emotions, matures at a much slower pace, which makes it more difficult for them to adequately express their thoughts and feelings.  Additionally, because young children can’t understand the permanence, universality, or causality of losses they experience yet, they tend to draw on “magical thinking” where they believe the loss can be easily fixed or reversed, or they create their own explanations for the loss that has no basis in reality.  While this might leave parents or caregivers dismayed or frustrated when they are unable to successfully explain the facts of a loss to children this age, this normal behavior is a key component of their development, as it helps them make sense of what’s happening and their reactions to it on their own terms.

Middle Childhood (Ages 5-7)

Since they haven’t yet grasped the concepts of cause and effect or abstract thought, children in this stage typically rely on concrete explanations for their thoughts and feelings relating to the losses they experience-and because they still lack the ability to effectively manage their emotions and think rationally, these explanations aren’t always realistic.  As a slightly different form of magical thinking from their earlier years carries over, they might erroneously think “I didn’t listen to mommy, and then she got sick, so it’s my fault”, or they may struggle with understanding that Everyone-not just them- can’t have in-person play dates right now, so they might have feelings of anger, guilt, or self-blame, which they may express through aggression in their play or toward others.  And, like older children, they can only handle a limited amount of focus on an important loss before retreating back to other non-threatening thoughts.

Late Childhood (Ages 8-11)

For those in later childhood, since they’re better able to express their feelings and find meaning in their losses, they generally are able to fully comprehend losses in this stage of development. Because they can grasp abstract ideas, and are now more able to self-regulate their emotions, they are better able to understand that the entire world has been affected by the pandemic (universality), that they’ll be OK with the “New Norms” like wearing masks (irreversability), and that they also can get Covid and why it’s important to stay safe (causality, personal mortality). But overall they too can’t handle extended feelings or expressions surrounding their grief, so they’ll flip back & forth between being able to talk about those feelings and then needing to break away to focus on other “non-grieving” thoughts and activities.

For more information on grief in children, be sure to check out this video by our NY Project Hope team.  Likewise, check out our other videos and blogs for some tips and strategies for helping children cope with stress.

Prefer to talk?  While these tips can be helpful in managing stress, it’s also important to remember that, particularly now- given the ways that the Covid-19 pandemic has changed so much about daily life- feeling stressed out is a normal and completely common reaction.  Asking for help if you’re feeling overwhelmed is always okay, whether from a family member, friend, or spiritual advisor, and the Crisis Counselors for NY Project Hope at Independent Living are always available to help, since sometimes it can be helpful to talk to someone you don’t know. Want to know more about how we can help?  Give us a call at 845-762-2275 – talking to us is always free, voluntary, and confidential.

Visit Independent Living Inc on Facebook, Instagram, or on the web at for more blogs, tips and videos on stress management techniques and coping strategies. #iliprojecthope.

Cindy Roe and Marie-Lise Baroutjian are crisis counselors from Independent Living, Inc. working on with the NY Project Hope program.