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5 Stages of Grief for a Child Losing a Parent

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Grief is a lifelong process. This is especially true for children who may revisit their loss of a parent and grieve all over again as they grow up and begin to understand the concept of death at a deeper level. They will grieve in different ways many times during their lifetime. As they reach new milestones and new life stages, their loss and grief become more profound and poignant.

There is nothing neat about the loss of a parent. However, dividing grief into five common stages, first outlined by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, can help us understand how to support children based on their current grief stage. It’s important to note that, at each stage, children express their grief differently based on their age group.

Childhood grief has many symptoms not seen in adults, such as nightmares, clinging, tantrums, regressions, and separation anxiety. There is no right or wrong way for coping with grief. And, of course, people, including children, do not go through the five stages of grief in a linear, organized process. Stages can be skipped and revisited again and again. More than one stage may be experienced at one time.

Still, the stages of grief described below can allow parents and caregivers to better help children process their loss through an established model.

Stage #1: Denial

The denial stage of grief protects children from their big emotions, which they do not know how to properly manage yet. With a limited understanding of death, denial is easier.

The loss of a parent is understandably negative and overwhelming. Grief can be too much to bear for adults, and the loss of a parent is life-changing and incomprehensible for children. To protect themselves from the difficult reality of this loss, children begin their grief with denial.

This can be expressed in two ways: They may have little or no reaction to the fact that their parent has died, but, more commonly, they simply won’t be able to absorb the loss completely and utterly. They will store away the grief for another moment. This may be their first reaction to the loss of a parent, but it may also come later in their process of grief when they start to get overwhelmed by their feelings or don’t want to believe it.

In the denial stage, children will often ask when their parents are coming back home or going back to their normal life of playing as a break from their grief.

Stage #2: Anger

Just as adults are known to lash out as a response to death, children also deal with grief using anger.

This anger may be expressed by pushing away their living parent or new caregiver, through tantrums, or through behavioural problems at school or home, such as fighting with siblings. They may also be angry with a living parent or doctor for not doing enough to save the parent they lost or with the parent who died for abandoning them. Children may also internalize their anger, believing that they are the reason their parents have died. In the stage of anger, it is important to explain that death is not their fault.

Stage #3: Bargaining

Children grieving the loss of a parent may try to make sense of their new reality through bargaining. At this stage, they may fantasize about ways their situation could be different. What would life be like if their parent had never died or could come back to life? What would it be like to be a normal kid living a happy life without deep grief, sadness, and emotional pain?

To try to live these fantasy scenarios, they may attempt to change the past or make a deal with God to get their parent back. They’ll relive their pasts to see what they could have done differently to save their parent. They may believe that if they change themselves or become the best behaved (especially if they believe the death is their fault), they can change what happened.

A child in the bargaining stage may avoid showing negative feelings, show signs of regret for how they lived before the death of their parent, and focus heavily on alternative realities where the loved one could be alive and what they would be doing.

Stage #4: Depression

When the loss of a parent truly sets in, depression is common. Symptoms like crying, deep sadness, and hopelessness can identify this stage in children and adults. In children, depression is also commonly displayed through changes in their eating and sleeping habits, disinterest in hobbies and sports they used to enjoy, and isolation from friends and family.

Most children work through this stage on their own. However, some may need medical help if they show signs of self-harm or suicidal thoughts.

Stage #5: Acceptance

While a child will still be sad and believe that the loss of their parent is unfair, they will typically find a way to move forward in their lives while they grieve. They’ll acknowledge their parent’s death but get back to a form of normalcy. They may start to play sports again and show interest in their hobbies. They’ll cry less. They’ll be less angry. They’ll start seeing their friends again. They’ll speak fondly of their parent and find ways to remember them.

It takes tremendous emotional work to get to the acceptance stage of grief, and it’s quite common for children to revert to other stages as they grow up, even if they’ve initially reached the acceptance stage. Grief is a lifelong process, after all.

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