Children can be 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 appear unconcerned about the event. In either case they will be trying to make sense of what has happened, and there are ways adults that adults can help.
Children, like adults, have their own individual ways of grieving, depending on their age and stage of development. 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 only to give religious explanations they actually believe themselves, as children are quick to pick up on statements that seem to be designed just for them.
Children can be extremely curious about everything to do with death. They might want details, information and explanations that adults would never think to mention or might feel are silly, or even rude. Frequently children feel they do not get the ‘real facts’ about a death. Being open to questions about the cause of death, the time and place it happened, why it occurred and even what the person looked like after death, can be difficult for adults, but getting these answers can be an important way for children to understand the reality of their loss.
Allowing children to attend the funeral can help them to understand what is happening. Drawing a picture to put 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 to support their children, to explain what is happening and to answer their questions.
Children’s Responses To Death
Children’s observations and attention to detail are heightened when a death occurs. They notice sadness in the adults around them, and changes in their mood and tone of voice. They may listen closely to adult conversations as they try to make sense of what is happening around them.
Sometimes children worry about their parents or other people they love getting hurt or dying, or worry 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” provides enough explanation for children to make sense of what they have noticed. When adults are able to express their feelings, this is often helpful to children who then have words to describe their own emotions.
When children are upset about a death, they may show their feelings through actions rather than words. Children’s eating, sleeping, or behaviour patterns may change or they may become insecure or clingy.
Other changes may include:
- wanting to sleep with a trusted adult
- restlessness, frustration or angry outbursts
- reduced concentration, energy and achievement at school
- increased physical complaints such as tummy aches
- regressing to behaviours like thumb-sucking and bedwetting
Usually such behaviours are temporary. Encouraging children’s questions, talking about the death, sharing feelings and providing comfort will usually help them return to normal behaviour. If changes in a child’s behaviour last a long time, seeing a professional can help them 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 don’t appear to want to talk about it may show their interest in the context of games they 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.
Information about supporting children through grief
Provides information and support to help everyone in Australia achieve their best possible mental health, whatever their age and wherever they live.
Supports 12-25 year-olds dealing with their own cancer diagnosis, a close family member’s cancer or the death of a loved one.
Child and Youth Health
Provides free support for all children 0-5 years living in South Australia
Good Grief Ltd
Evidence-based Australian education programs to support children and young people experiencing loss and grief
Providing group chats, online communities, and 1:1 direct support
Page last updated: 2 February, 2020