Grief is confusing. And while it’s completely natural for parents to worry about their children and want to protect them, the best thing is to give them honest, age-appropriate information about a death. Someone who knows the child really well should break the news. Children understand the world through other people; family primarily, but also carers, teachers, extended family, and friends. Support from all these people is vital.
Children process information by age and stage. How they grieve varies depending on their personality, age and level of understanding of death, but all children need clear information. Use words they understand, and be honest and reassuring. Children experience ‘puddle grief’: they tend not to be sad all the time, instead they dip in and out, getting diverted by playing with friends, or doing routine things such as going to school.
Factors to consider in a child’s reactions to bereavement:
- Who has died?
- How did they die?
- What was the child’s relationship with the deceased?
- How do the family express feelings and communicate?
- What else is going on in their life?
- What supports are available in the family, and among friends and community?
Children feel the loss over a lifetime, and in different ways: as they grow and learn to understand the real meaning of death and loss; as they revisit their grief, especially around milestones such as anniversaries, Christmas, or moving from primary to secondary.
How can families and friends show their support?
- Acknowledge that the loss is important, and that it matters.
- Listen to their thoughts, feelings and opinions. Let them know it is fine to ask questions.
- Give age-appropriate information.
- Maintain day-to-day routine as much as possible.
- If things have to change, include the child in decisions, explain the changes and reassure them.
- If they want to, let the child take part in the goodbye rituals.
- Make sure they need to know it’s okay not to be sad all the time.
- Give them time to show their feelings, even anger, which can be an expression of deep hurt and unfairness.
- Let them talk about their relationship with the person who has died.
- As the child matures, they may need new ‘explanations’, which can involve revisiting the loss and what it means.
- They need to know that they are not to blame; anything they thought or said did not cause the death.
- With sudden deaths, where there is no opportunity to say goodbye, they may be angry or act out in protest.
- Meeting other bereaved children can help them see that they are not alone.
- Help them develop coping strategies and resilience to live with loss.
- Reassure them that they are loved, and that they will be cared for no matter how difficult grief is for the family.
- With good support, most children will not need professional help.
Reading with children can be a good way to support them in talking about their feeling and concerns. See our book list suggestions