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Grief Manifests Differently in Children

Most of us, as adults, have experienced grief of some sort throughout our lives. Maybe we lost a loved one, maybe we lost a marriage, or maybe we lost what we thought would become of our lives.

Either way, we experienced pain unlike we’ve ever felt before.

As most of us know, grief isn’t neat or pretty, and it doesn’t look the same for every person. There are stages of grief, but the ways that we process those stages are as varied as we are.

Children experience grief the same as we do, but the manifestation of their grief is often quite different. As I’ve walked my children through an immense amount of grief over the past two weeks, I’ve learned firsthand just how different it can look for them. It’s still just as miserable to witness–maybe even moreso–but it presents in ways that I never thought it would.

Here’s what we’ve experienced so far. (And I don’t tell you any of this to expose my children’s pain, but to help you understand what your children or students might be going through if they’re grieving, too.)

On impact–the moment my kids got the news–they screamed. Both of them. They screamed for a really long time, and they started panicking. Their panic looked like kicking the walls, crying so hard they hyperventilated, and then throwing accusations at everyone in the room.

That lasted for an hour or two. I’m never sure on the time frame because time is weird when you’re hurting.

After that, they both sort of shut down. My four year old only wanted to play video games for the rest of the night, which I’m sure was her way of turning her emotions off. Even as a young child, she naturally wants to escape the bad feelings inside of her. And, as it does for many kids growing up right now, that meant being on an electronic.

We didn’t deny her that because we could hardly bare her pain ourselves.

When our eight year old shut down, she really, truly shut down. She wouldn’t eat, she wouldn’t talk, she wouldn’t get off the couch. When people were around, she would interact if they bugged her enough, but mostly she just wanted to be quiet. And as soon as the people left, her face went back to being stoic and she stared at the wall for a long time.

For about the next week, she cried off and on. The wailing stopped pretty early on, but the silent crying lasted for a really long time. She would cry in the middle of watching a movie because she started thinking about what she’d lost. Or she’d cry when she walked into a room and saw me crying. Or she’d cry over a bowl of Cheerios first thing in the morning because it was so painful just to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

She wouldn’t say that because she couldn’t speak about her pain at all, but I know that’s how she felt because it’s how I felt, too.

How could people keep living life at a normal pace when we had lost everything we’d ever known? How were we supposed to wake up in the mornings and shove food into our faces, as if we didn’t want to throw up at the sight of it? How would we ever feel happy again?

It’s been two and a half weeks of pure misery, and she still won’t talk about how she’s feeling. The furthest we’ve gotten is that I can ask her how she’s doing, and she’ll respond with a “thumbs up.” Except it’s never a thumbs up. It’s always a thumbs down or a thumb in the middle.

One day, she said, “You can stop asking me that, Mom. I’ve felt in the middle every single day since the big thing happened. I’m going to feel in the middle every time you ask it.”

She literally feels like she will never be happy again, and I totally get it.

One day, we dropped her off at her best friend’s house so that she could have some time away from the sadness of our house. Her best friend’s mom told me that as soon as I shut the door behind me, it was like the lid came off of her feelings and she blurted everything out. When her friend’s mom asked if she wanted a hug, my daughter said, “No. It’s whatever. I’m over it.”

Even as a kid, she’s trying to stuff her pain down so that she doesn’t have to deal with it. It still comes out; it just comes out in different ways, which she doesn’t realize.

It comes out when she snaps at her sister for talking to loudly, or when she has a stomachache for two straight weeks, or when nothing sounds good for dinner, or when she doesn’t want to leave the house because she’s afraid something bad will happen.

If we look closely enough, we can always see a person’s pain, whether they’re trying to hide it or not. That’s no different in children. Spend some time with them, not asking questions or trying to help, just being with them. You’ll see where they’re hurting.

Grief Manifests Differently in Children

W. R. Cummings

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APA Reference
Cummings, W. (2019). Grief Manifests Differently in Children. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 11, 2020, from


Last updated: 29 Jul 2019
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