Stages of Understanding Grief

Newborn to Three Years

Very young children don’t understand that death is final, and may ask questions like “can’t we help Daddy up from his grave?” or “when will my sister be back?” Children at this age think in very concrete terms. Phrases like “he went to sleep” or “she’s in heaven” are received as heard. So, a two-year-old will want to “wake him up” or “go to heaven too”. This is why honest, simple answers to their questions are best. Even though very young children don’t have a full understanding of what death is, they definitely react emotionally to loss. Even children as young as two will understand that.

Four to Six Years

Children in this age range are beginning to understand what “life” is and that the human body sustains life. This can help children understand that if a person gets sick or is in an accident, the body may not recover, and that person dies. Young children process new things through repetition. A child at this age may repeat the same question or state the same thought many times. By the age of six, many children are developing an understanding that death is irreversible and the person who died is not coming back.

Six to Nine Years

Kids at this stage can understand that death is universal and unavoidable. They may have seen animals, plants or insects that have died, or experienced the death of a pet. Continuing with concrete thinking, the 6 to 9-year-old may want or need concrete ways to express their grief – seeing the headstone or keeping a photograph of the person who died. This age group may begin to understand the finality of death, be interested in what happens to the body, and want to know more about autopsies, cremation, or burials.

Nine to Twelve Years

Young people 9 to 12 typically understand death much like an adult does – that it is final and will impact their lives. Children in the pre-teen years may feel anxious that someone else will die, or about dying themselves. You may find kids in this age range are reluctant to share their thoughts and feelings and may prefer to talk with their friends, rather than their family. Many young people at this age are more aware of their own spiritual side, and are better able to identify emotions they are feeling and how they wish to express them.

Thirteen to Eighteen Years, and Young Adults

By the age thirteen, young people understand some of the complexities and questions of death as an adult would. A person this age likely has a clearer understanding of “future.” Teenagers often develop a “world view” and begin thinking independently about their own spirituality. Because the teen and early twenties’ years can be a time of physical, mental, and emotional upheaval, the addition of grief often creates even stronger feelings of vulnerability.


Visit our Resources page for recommended books, journals, websites, and other materials on grieving.