​The impact of grief is very real for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Unfortunately, not much attention has been given to the bereavement needs of these individuals or other people with special needs.

Knowledge about ways to assist them is limited and written resources are few. In fact, the question has even arisen: does an individual with intellectual and developmental disabilities understand the meaning of death? Depending on the level of cognitive functioning, they may or may not understand the concept of death, especially its permanency, but they have a good understanding of loss and how it makes them feel. Most of these individuals have experienced losses throughout their entire life.

Difficulties may arise after a death when the individual starts feeling the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual impact of grief. Grief reactions may include behaviors such as: being overly tired, increased irritability, wanting to be alone, excessive crying, impatience, becoming angry easily, difficulty with housemates, being more aggressive and repeatedly asking the same questions. Depending on their cognitive and verbal abilities, they may not be able to say what is bothering them.

Staff and family may often misinterpret the reason for the changes in behavior. They may assume the bereaved is being lazy, difficult or stubborn. The fact is that individuals with mental retardation have the same types of reaction to a death as those who do not have any disability.

Assisting these individuals can be challenging. Deciphering how and what they are communicating can be very difficult. Their responses cannot always be taken at face value. For instance, many individuals will answer all questions with a positive response. Time frames may be difficult to interpret. You may even notice the person having a conversation with the deceased.

The death may trigger other losses. For example, if the individual has been living at home and the caregiver dies, he or she may have to be placed in a group home.

It is important to allow the individual to attend the funeral and/or visitation (even if special arrangements need to be made), to participate in rituals if possible, and to visit the cemetery. As with those of us who function normally, their grief journey also needs this kind of closure and support.

For persons with intellectual or developmentally disabilities, the grief journey may be different but the road is the same. Support and understanding is just as important in assisting them to successfully move through their journey as it is for everyone else.