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How Children Grieve

Even if they don't remember a parent, they remember being nurtured.

Key points

  • The silently-held aspects of grief among children may obscure our understanding of what actually takes place.
  • Imagery can reunite the child with someone who has died.
  • The child may not consciously remember a loving parent, but they are guided by implicit memories of their nurturing.
  • Losing someone significant may activate a seeking response in a child—an attempt at reunification.

Past theorists believed that mourning is not possible in young children since children cannot separate reality from hope (Wolfenstein, 1966). Thus, they cannot relinquish their persistent fantasies of finding the lost parents again (Deutsch & Jackson, 1937).

Attachment theorist John Bowlby (1961) disagreed, explaining that when children protest in reaction to loss and demand the lost loved one’s return, they are displaying a painful awareness of irretrievability, yet they are also stepping toward accepting reality. In Bowlby’s conceptualization, the child will eventually tolerate the idea of giving up the deceased. In any case, the early understanding of childhood loss involved the notion that grief is something to get over.

The silently-held aspects of grief, especially among children, have perhaps obscured our understanding of what actually takes place: They remember, and mourn, yet are unlikely to tell us about it. They do not “get over” a significant loss.

Although I agree that an eventual awareness of irretrievability does take place with children, I question whether the lost loved one is ever “given up.” Instead, in childhood, fertile imagery about a loved one’s presence may represent a coping mechanism in response to their absence.

“We live on images,” wrote Robert Lifton (1979) the distinguished psychiatrist and author, who described the elusive psychological relationship between death and the flow of life (p. 3). Imagery is a cognitive process that enables humans to construct visual, sensory, or imaginative scenes that otherwise reside in memory (McBride & Cutting, 2016). Images can possess sensory qualities related to vision, hearing, taste, smell, touch, and movement (Hackmann, 1998; Kosslyn, 1994). Aside from their presence in fantasies during our waking life, they also occur in our dreams. Through imagery, we can connect possibilities that we hope to realize or duplicate (Tomkins, 2008). In this way, we can create images that reunite us with someone who has died.

Early theorists did not consider that children who lose a parent may continue their bond with the parent long after they acknowledge to themselves that the parent will never return. Using imagination and imagery, children keep their loved ones close in waking life as well as in their dreams. They struggle with the process of getting over grief because they never truly get over it; instead, they silently continue their bonds with the person who has died.

Much like adults remember the idealized version of a loved one who has died, children also tend to idealize a deceased parent. Idealized or not, in a child’s creative mind a deceased parent is the one the child knows and whose image continues to guide the child’s life, for better or worse.

Children under the age of seven lack a fully developed brain structure that enables long-term memory storage (McBride & Cutting, 2016). Therefore, adults who have lost a parent in their early childhood may lament the absence of memories of their parent. This same type of deficit does not occur, though, with implicit memories (unconscious memories, sensory memories) (McBride & Cutting, 2016). Therefore, aspects of relationships with parents remain stored in the child’s implicit memory and inform their adulthood. So although we may not consciously remember a loving parent, we are guided by our implicit memories of their nurturing.

We often meld grief and the search for a lost loved one. The search for lost things is, for children, a common literary theme that includes the quest for reunification, the effort to find one’s way home, or the discovery of the place where lost treasures go.

“The Place Where Lost Things Go” is a soothing song for children about the loss of their mother that was written for the 2018 movie "Mary Poppins Returns." The lyrics reassure the children that their mother is “smiling from a star that she makes glow” and they can find her in the place “where the lost things go” (Blunt, 2018). The theme has also been used to depict a safe place for adults, such as in the poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s writing of sheltering his soul “among remote lost objects, in some dark and silent place” (Rilke, 1907/1995).

However, it is in fact the case that losing someone significant in their lives may activate a seeking response in the child—an attempt at reunification—that was previously, and perhaps even now, considered to be a pathologic experience (Wolfenstein, 1966). Such seeking behaviors may take the form of, for example, imagining a noise representing the lost loved one in the home; losing something that has to be found; “seeing” their lost loved one in a car on the road, walking in the distance, or in a dream; or even having a compulsion to wander. The emotions activated by reminders of a loved one often motivate the child to seek because they are seeking a reunion with someone wanted and needed back in their lives.

Other children who experience loss may immerse themselves in everyday activities. Some others may enact their emotional states, which the adults in their lives may perceive as behavioral problems or depression.

An 8-year-old boy told me that his grandfather had died two weeks before, and he wanted to know “how to get over it.” He said he thought about his grandfather “all the time and can’t concentrate on anything else.” A 12-year-old boy explained that his dog had died, and he wanted to know what to do, since he couldn’t say goodbye to her. He added, “I don’t think I could ever fill my heart with what is left of her.” I didn’t ask what he meant by his choice of words; however, I felt their meaning. A 13-year-old girl said that since her mom died several years ago, her dad tries to be both a mom and dad, adding, “but it always feels like something is missing.” She asked, “How do I get over my mom dying?” All of these children were grappling with the idea of a process they must go through (Lamia, 2006).

Children mourn in their own ways and they often keep their lost loved ones with them through a continued bond. They do not necessarily give up a strong attachment to the deceased but, instead, they often use the static images of a lost loved one to help direct their lives; imagining expressions of pride at their accomplishments, disappointment when they stumble, and comfort when they are sad.

Excerpted in part from my book, Grief Isn’t Something to Get Over: Finding a Home for Memories and Emotions After Losing a Loved One (APA LifeTools Books, 2022).

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Blunt, E. (2018). The place where the lost things go [Song]. https://www.

Bowlby, J. (1961). Processes of mourning. The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 42, 317–340.

Deutsch, H. & Jackson, E. (1937). Absence of grief. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 6:1, 12-22, DOI: 10.1080/21674086.1937.11925307

Hackmann, A. (1998). Working with images in clinical psychology. In A. S. Bellack & M. Hersen (Eds.), Comprehensive clinical psychology (Vol. 6, pp. 301–318). Elsevier.

Kosslyn, S. M. (1994). Image and brain: The resolution of the imagery debate. MIT Press.

Lamia, M. C. (2006). Making psychology a household word—Just for kids. Professional Psychology Research and Practice, 37(2), 114–118.

Lifton, R. J. (1979). The broken connection: On death and the continuity of life. American Psychiatric Press.

McBride, D. M., & Cutting, J. C. (2016). Cognitive psychology: Theory, process, and methodology. Sage

Rilke, R. M. (1995). Love song. In S. Mitchell (Trans.), Ahead of all parting: The selected poetry and prose of Rainer Maria Rilke (pp. 29–30). Random House. (Original work published 1907)

Tomkins, S. S. (2008). Affect imagery consciousness. Springer.

Wolfenstein, M. (1966). How is mourning possible? The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 21, 93–123.

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