Grief in 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 try to 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.

Talking To Children About Death

There seems to be no best way to give children sad news except perhaps to tell them as soon as possible, and in a truthful and 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“. In general, it may be best for adults to only give religious explanations they actually believe themselves, as children are quick to pick up when such statements were designed just for them.

Children can be extremely curious about everything that has to do with death. They might want details, information and explanations that adults would never think to mention or might feel slightly 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 are important ways in which death is made real to children.

Allowing children to attend the funeral can help them to understand what is happening, and drawing a picture to put in or on the coffin can make them feel a part of the ceremony and help them to say ‘goodbye’ to their loved one.

If parents are grieving deeply it may be helpful for another trusted adult to be available for support, to explain what is happening and to answer questions.

Children’s Responses To Death

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…so much” is enough to give an explanation to children for what they have noticed. 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 children are upset about a death, they may show their feelings through actions instead of talking. Eating, sleeping, or behaviour patterns may change and they may become insecure or clingy.

Other changes may include:

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

Usually such behaviours are temporary. Encouraging their questions, talking about the death, sharing feelings and comforting the child will usually help them return to normal behaviour. If these changes last a long time, seeing a professional can help children and carers to work through the loss.

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 may become interested in the event at a later stage; those who do not appear to want to talk about it may show their interest in play. Adults can keep the topic open for discussion by raising it occasionally and by paying attention to the children’s indirect as well as direct references to the death.