Developmental Stages of Children and Grief

Children experience grief differently at various ages and developmental stages. It’s helpful to keep in mind how they might experience the grief process.

Three to five years old

  • Don’t understand “forever.” Death is seen as temporary or reversible.
  • Separation caused by illness is particularly frightening.
  • Need reassurance that their emotions are normal and okay.
  • “Magical thinking” is common – may believe their thoughts or actions are connected to illness or death.

Ages six to nine

  • Begin to understand that death is final, but think it happens only to other people.
  • Very curious about illness and want details about physical changes that occur.
  • Think illness is a scary creature or person who takes people away.
  • Might fear that death is contagious.
  • May continue to believe that their thoughts cause events.
  • Worry harm might come to their caregivers – what will happen if those who care for them become sick.

Ages nine to 12

  • Many have experienced the death of a relative or, more often, the loss of a pet.
  • Know death is final and comes to all plants and animals.
  • May be extremely interested in the physical process of dying, but still see death as distant from themselves.
  • Worry about the effects the loss will have on their immediate future.
  • May fear that the loss will set them apart as being different from their friends and school peers.


  • Forging their own identities – most do so by pushing their parents away and that is normal.
  • The death of a parent can cause confusion and guilt.
  • Death is fascinating, frightening and particularly threatening for adolescents.
  • Don’t like anything that makes them feel different from their peers.
  • Losses may make teens feel more childlike and dependent, but may feel required to step into an adult role.