University of Illinois Extension

Grief: A Normal Reaction to Loss

Ann Marie Marshall, Family Life Educator

When children come to live with their grandparents, it is often because of a tragedy - a parent has died, abandoned them, been incarcerated, or is very ill.

With this tragedy comes not only the loss of the parent, but also the loss of friends, neighbors, home and school. As one teacher observed, "It's the loss of the person who knew you the best."

Grief is a normal reaction to loss. But in children, grief may be quite different depending on their ages and stages of development.

Even though infants have little awareness of exactly what has happened, they do experience feelings of loss and separation. Crankiness, eating disorders, sleep problems, and intestinal disturbances are all normal grief reactions in children under a year.

For toddlers, the separation may seem like a game of disappearance and reappearance. They expect their parents to return at any time.

Children ages 3 to 6 sometimes believe that they caused their parents to leave. Feelings of guilt and responsibility are common. At this age, children do not understand the meaning of time. Words like forever are hard for them to grasp.

Older children can understand loss, but they may not realize their behavior is related to their loss.

Allow your grandchildren to talk about their parents, friends, and previous home or school. If talking is too hard, ask them to draw a picture or write a note. Keeping a scrapbook or box of mementos from their previous relationship can help them maintain a connection to the past - even when the past is painful to remember. Be flexible. They may want to remember at unusual times or places.