The standard signs of bereavement in children are loss of appetite, insomnia, and heightened emotions. Children experience different emotions and stages of bereavement based on their age and emotional maturity. In other words, the signs of bereavement in a six-year-old can be vastly different than in a preteen. Either way, the issue of death can be confusing and painful for a child, especially if a parent is not emotionally capable of providing comfort.
Infants do not understand death, but can experience a sense of loss and separation. This is particularly true if the infant’s primary caregiver is the person who passed away. Bereavement signs in children less than one-year-old generally involve being less active and less responsive to positive stimuli. The child might also lose weight due to loss of appetite and sleep less than usual. These reactions to death are usually not observed if the child did not have a strong bond with the recently deceased.
In addition to appetite loss and minor insomnia, signs of bereavement in children from age two to six years old might be loss of bladder and bowel control if the child is already potty-trained. It is not unusual for signs of bereavement in children to include excessive concern about their own or a relative’s well-being, emotionally clinging to a parent, and uncharacteristic aggressiveness. Normally, children around this age are unable to completely grasp the concept of death. They can confuse death with sleeping or believe the deceased is still alive but far away. Funerals can be especially confusing for a child who does not understand death, and he or she might question the burial process.
By the time a child is nine years old, his or her signs of bereavement are similar to an adult’s. The child typically understands death to some degree and knows that it is an unavoidable consequence of life. Although it is normal to experience mood swings, destructive behavior, and a feeling of abandonment by the deceased, children of this age generally no longer view death as a punishment.
Around the age of 12, the signs of bereavement in children can include feeling guilty about being alive, emotional outbursts, and anger toward the deceased. Normally, kids around this age are no longer confused about the concept of death. They know that death is final, can happen to anyone, and will someday happen to them.