Grief Topic

Grief Reactions Associated with Children

Children are deeply affected by the death of someone they love or care about. Even the youngest children are able to sense loss and experience grief. They may express their reactions and emotions directly or they may outwardly appear unconcerned about the event. In either case they will be trying to make sense out of what has happened and there are ways adults can be of help. Children, like adults, have their own individual ways of grieving, depending on their age and development stage, and it is important that they are not “left out” when a death occurs.

There seems to be no best way to give children sad news except perhaps to tell them immediately and to tell them the truth in a simple, straightforward way. Words may not come easily when talking about death to children. However, it has been found that using concrete words like “died” and “death” is easier for children than abstract expressions such as “passed on” or “gone away”, which can be confusing to a young mind.

Sometimes there is a strong impulse to comfort children by using religious explanations of death, such as saying that the person has “gone to heaven”. Children are sensitive to the possibility that such statements were designed just for them. In general it may be best for adults to only give religious explanations they actually believe themselves.

Children are extremely curious about everything that has to do with death. They often want details, information and explanations that adults would never think to mention or might feel are silly, even rude. Frequently children feel they did not get the ‘real facts’ about a death. Being open to questions about the cause of death, time and place it happened, why it happened and even what the person looked like after death, can be difficult for adults but important ways in which death is made real to children. If parents are grieving deeply it may be helpful for another trusted adult to be available for questions.

Children’s observations and attention to detail are heightened when a death occurs. They notice tone of voice, mood changes, sadness in adults and listen carefully to adult conversations. Sometimes children worry about their parents or other people they love getting hurt or dying, or about dying themselves. Children need to be reassured that they are safe and taken care of during times of family grief. It does not seem to help to deny the sadness. Sometimes a simple explanation such as “we are all sad (crying) because we loved her so much” is enough to give an explanation to children for what they have been observing. When adults are able to express their own feelings this is often helpful to children who then have words to describe what they are feeling.

When upset about a death, children may act out their feelings instead of talking. Eating, sleeping or behaviour patterns may change and they may become insecure or clingy.

Changes may include:

  • wanting to sleep with a trusted adult
  • restlessness, frustration or angry outbursts
  • reduction in concentration, energy and achievement at school
  • increased physical complaints
  • regression to behaviours like thumbsucking and bedwetting

Usually such changes are temporary and encouraging their questions, talking about the death, sharing feelings and comforting the child will assist a return to normal behaviour. If changes are prolonged, help should be sought from a professional.

One of the most important aspects of helping may be to recognise that as children continue to grow and develop, new opportunities will arise for them to absorb and deal with what has happened. Children who show little reaction to a death or who do not appear to want to talk about it, sometimes are interested in the event at a later stage or reflect their interest in play. Adults can keep the topic open for discussion by raising it occasionally and by paying attention to indirect as well as direct references to the death.