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One Culture, Different Worlds:

Attempts to Understand the Grief Processes of Children and Elders

Samantha Olewnik

End-of-Life Issues
April 29, 2014

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Grief affects us all as human beings, regardless of age or life experience. The
bereavement process has been studied countless times, each with the hope of pinpointing exactly
what the proper stages or processes of grief should look like. Sigmund Freud drew upon his
psychodynamic theories to explain the phenomena, believing grief to be a process that required a
reconstruction of the balance between the conscious and unconscious minds (Wortman 350).
Renowned psychoanalyst John Bowlby believed grief responses to be tied to the way in which a
person was reared by their mother, emphasizing his theory of attachment (Bretherton 759). In
recent years, however, there has been a new focus on grief - a focus on the individual.
Researchers are beginning to realize that because we as humans are each individual, the ways in
which we react to different situations will also be individual, especially the grieving process.
Doctor Andrew Rosenzweig argues that the human reaction to bereavement is
characterized by a remarkable variety of feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, of which grief or
sadness is often regarded as the most generally experienced emotion (Rosenzweig 423). Other
reactions, he explains, can include pining for the deceased, numbness, shock, hallucinatory
experiences, guilt, anger, depression, irritability, a sense of meaninglessness, and health
problems, as well as feelings of hope or relief (423). This extensive list is evidence that there
are a number of what might be considered normal ways to grieve, so it should make sense that
people may experience a mixture of (or even all) of these reactions as they progress through the
grieving process. Bereavement has no predefined stages to be followed (424).
While there may be documentation of the vast array of grieving processes, few studies
have examined which processes seem to be most evident in different age groups, if any. Much of
the research on grieving children focuses on what adults can do to influence their behavior, while
studies of elders are more concerned with documenting specific grieving patterns versus how we

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can go about comforting this demographic. Researchers seem to view children as pawns of their
environment, while elders are deemed as simple creatures to be observed. Neither analogy is
very helpful, and they both seem to predispose research projects on either end of the spectrum to
One major (and obvious) difference between the lives of children and elders is the fact
that elders do not attend school, or at least primary school. Some professionals argue that the
more carefully a grieving child is examined, the more likely the researcher will be to emphasize
environmental factors as important determinants of the course of a childs grief (Shapiro 73).
The schooling environment can play a large part in shaping how a grieving child will grieve.
Unfortunately, many schools are not prepared to deal with a childs grief, and may even advise
teachers to pretend that nothing has happened so that the child will believe everything is
normal (S. Black 29). This of course is a fruitless strategy, and can often be detrimental to a
childs development. Children in fact need extra emotional support to recover from their losses,
but it is uncommon for institutions to place an emphasis on this awareness for their staff (S.
Black 29). Some scholars believe that children are unable to experience grief at all, which does
not encourage grief education in schools (Doka 23).
The level of death education that a child possesses will also have a direct impact on their
coping abilities and processes. In their research regarding childrens perceptions of the end of
life, Professors Mark W. Speece and Sandor B. Brent of Wayne State University separate an
understanding of death into three components: irreversibility, or the comprehension that once
something is dead it cannot come back to life, nonfunctionality, or the knowledge that dead
things cannot perform tasks, and universality, or the understanding that death is something that
happens to everyone (Speece 1673). They argue that children as young as eighteen months of

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age have some sort of concept of death despite their immaturity, though their reasons for this
assumption are not clear. A childs understanding of these concepts depends on the information
they receive from adults. For instance, young children often understand the concept that death
means some people will not come back, but they may also believe that certain important
individuals, such as teachers, are exempt from death (Speece 1676). Older adults are more likely
to be aware of the concrete facts regarding death, such as the fact that no one is exempt from the
end of their life, even if they are important. It is important for parents or other caretakers to
remember that they are sharing personal attitudes, beliefs, experiences, and their personal history
when they discuss concepts of death with a child, whether or not they are aware of it (Seibert
10). The way in which an adult answers questions or comes across to a questioning child will
determine whether or not that child will continue probing for answers, and in turn continue
reshaping their views on death. If a parent comes across as annoyed or put-off by this topic, the
child will learn not to discuss it again, leading to a loss of learning opportunity and an overall
diminished ability to cope with loss in their own lives (Seibert 10). Elders who experience loss
will already have their own views on death sorted out, or at least have a more concrete
understanding of what death is, and so be better equipped to cope with difficult losses than
children whose parents are not open to teaching them.
It is not uncommon for parents to highly distort, or completely gloss over, details of
certain circumstances of death altogether, believing they are sparing their child from some sort of
emotional distress (Shapiro 82). This belief can actually lead to a child becoming neglected
throughout the grieving process, as their parents are too ill-equipped to deal with their own
emotions (let alone their childs) because of their reluctance to come to terms with their possible
occurrence during these types of conversations (Shapiro 76). CHildren who experience this

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neglect are more likely to have trouble coping with loss throughout their lives, but as they gain
life experience with age, the consequences of this neglect diminish.
As aforementioned, while research regarding children and grief appears to focus more on
why children behave the way they do, research focused on grieving elders seems more concerned
with marking down how grief manifests within this population. Children who are grieving are
often processing the loss of a parent or grandparent, while elders are more often mourning the
loss of a spouse. While any loss can be trying, the loss of a spouse is sometimes seen as more
difficult to overcome, since there is usually less time in the grieving persons life to overcome
this lifestyle change, versus a young child who has many decades ahead of them to adjust to the
loss of a parent.
Studies show that children and adolescents who experience the loss of a loved one are
oftentimes much more resilient in overcoming grief than older people. One study reveals that
more than half of children and adolescents bereaved by sudden parental death experienced a
rapid resolution of the manifestation of their grief within one year of their parents death
(Melham et al. 918). Elders who have lost a spouse, however, are more likely to have a harder
time moving forward. Their initial levels of grief may sustain themselves for two or three years
after the loss before diminishing (Rosenzweig 423). If the individual becomes depressed, their
depression is likely to peak six months after the spouses death, not diminish as suggested by the
adolescent study. Further, because the loss of a spouse can be an incredibly taxing transition,
surviving elders own risk of mortality increases significantly during the grieving process as
compared to married persons of the same age (Rosenzweig 424). There have been no mortality
studies of this nature performed on children who are grieving; the loss of a parent may be

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horrific, but a young body is often much better at handling this shock than an older person who
has just lost their life partner.
Furthermore, an issue that elders face after the death of a spouse that children most likely
do not is an added layer of responsibilities. Family relationships will surface as a source of
support for the bereaved, but sometimes the stresses of the new responsibilities and social roles
that have been transferred from the deceased to the bereaved can strain an elders relationship
with their support system, leaving them feeling isolated even further (Shapiro 26). Children are
more likely to have an extensive support network, family or otherwise, to help them cope; elders
do not always have this luxury, which can contribute to a prolonged grieving process. According
to one study, levels of anxiety regarding these new roles were highest among recently widowed
men, contributing to increased psychological distress overall (Byrne 246). The support systems
that form around a grieving child seem to be lacking for grieving elders, an issue that needs to be
addressed immediately judging by the persistent nature of grief for many older people.
One point discovered through these studies that applies to both young and older people
alike is the application of the popular belief that grief can still be concretely defined and tracked.
Despite the recent research that supports the claim that grief is different for everyone and has no
set time limit, the general public is still hesitant to incorporate this view, often resulting in
unnecessary consequences for the bereaved in the form of therapy. Sometimes grief counseling
is necessary, but only when the bereaved feels the need for it, not when society thinks it should
be used. Sometimes a persons lack of emotion while grieving can arouse suspicion in
onlookers, leading the survivor to be referred to therapy so they can better process their
feelings (Wortman 350). This display of absent grief might even be an indication of some sort
of pathological/personality disorder according to some professionals. It has also been argued

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that children who lose a parent early in life are at a predisposed risk of developing a psychotic
disorder in later childhood (D. Black 932). This may be more due to the fact that children are
often unaware of societys belief that it is important to stay strong during difficult times,
especially in public (Doka 27). Values such as these are often taught by example rather than
discussed, leaving a child to possibly view their grief as unacceptable, while elders have become
accustomed to this practice of privacy and usually adhere to it out of habit (Doka 28).
Although the loss of a loved one can be experienced at any age, there is very little
research in existence that compares the grieving processes of children and elders. Research on
childrens grief processes examines why they experience what they do, while studies conducted
on elders focus on what they are feeling. Both age groups share feelings of vulnerability and
despair, but our culture has conditioned elders to look towards the future and children to
remember the past in search of comfort. Approaching the grieving processes of all generations
with a similar attitude might be a better way of providing opportunities to teach children about
death first-hand, and helping both groups understand that they are truly not alone throughout
their struggles.

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