How children understand and react to grief depends on their age and stage of development. Grief is a heavy burden for a child to carry continually, so they need to put it down sometimes. Grief changes as children get older. As they grow and mature, their understanding of death increases, and they may need to revisit their grief again over the years. It can often be surprising for adults that children are talking or upset about a loss that happened perhaps years earlier when the child was much younger. It is very natural for them to try to understand the loss when they have developed a better ability to do so. When you realise what your child’s understanding of death is, you can help them. The general guidelines are:
Children’s Understanding of Death
After a death in the family it is common for a baby or toddler to become withdrawn or display outbursts of loud crying and angry tears. Although infants do not understand death, they know when things have changed, and may react to a person’s absence. This may show in clinginess and distress. Support them by maintaining the child’s routine and making them feel secure.
The child still does not fully understand death. They don’t realise death is permanent and will happen to everyone. It’s important they know that they deceased is not simply ‘asleep’, and that they will not return. They may worry that something they said or did have caused the death, and need to be reassured that it wasn’t their fault. Children often ask the same questions over and over again. Support the child by encouraging them to ask questions, and answering them openly and simply.
Children gradually learn that death is final and that all people will die at some time. This may make them worry that other people close to them will also die. It can help children to talk about these fears. We can’t promise children that no-one will ever die, but we can help them to feel safe by telling them that they will always be looked after. More curious children in this age group often ask direct questions about what has happened the body as they are trying to understand. They may blame themselves in some way for the death and can engage in ‘magical thinking’; filling the gaps when information has not been given to them. Support the child by encouraging them to talk about and express their feelings, no matter what those feelings are.
This age group understands that death is irreversible, universal, and has a cause. Grief can express itself through physical aches and pains and challenging behaviour. It is important not to place unnecessary responsibility on children of this age; particularly eldest children who may feel responsible for younger siblings, or boys who lose their father and take on the role of ‘man of the house’. Support the child by reassuring them about changes in lifestyle (such as household income and the family home).
Adolescence is a time of great change. Teenagers struggle with issues of identity and independence as they try to bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood. Losing someone can make life very difficult.
Adolescents need clear and accurate information at the time of a death. Involving teens in the rituals can help them, but be sure to treat them in a manner appropriate to their age. They may wish to take an active part in funeral arrangements, or to mark the death in their own way.
Adolescents fully understand the concept of death. They know it is final and inevitable. However, confusion arises as they struggle with the many emotions, thoughts and mood changes that the death creates while trying to remain similar to their peers.
For more information: See Adolescence and Grief
Following a death, children can experience various grief reactions:
Emotional responses may include fear, anxiety, confusion, anger, sadness, relief, loneliness, guilt, isolation.
Physical responses may include low energy, interrupted sleep or eating patterns, unexplained aches and pains.
Behavioural responses may include lack of concentration, temporary dis-improvement in school work, memory loss, ‘acting out’, aggression, irritability or regression to behaviour more commonly associated with a younger age (such as bed wetting, thumb-sucking, or baby talk).
Social responses may include loss of self-esteem and confidence, withdrawal from friends and activities, or a fall-off in school attendance.
Children may exhibit none, some, or many of these responses. All bereaved children and young people need to be heard and have their need for information, simple explanations and reassurance met after a loss.
A child’s reaction to death will depend on their personality, how the person died, how the family are coping, and the child’s developmental stage. Some may need extra help. Such support may include help to understand that their emotions are normal, or perhaps extra help with feelings or behaviours that are disrupting their everyday life. For a very small number of children, their needs may include addressing suicidal thoughts/behaviours, and other clinical issues which may require more specialised support.
Children’s reactions to a death can be very intense but brief, they may experience strong emotions suddenly and then seem to go back to normal everyday activities very quickly, such as playing with friends. But they will revisit those strong emotions again and again.