Grief in Children
Bereavement or a loss can be a very
significant and disturbing challenge for a child or adolescent.
Teenagers and children may experience grief in a different way to
Different Response To Adults
Children and teenagers respond to grief differently to adults and as
such, they should be treated differently. From 9 years onwards, the
child now knows that death is final and irreversible. They know it could
happen to themselves and anyone else. They may exhibit feelings such as
shock, anxiety, denial, anger and fear, depression and withdrawal. They
may be the same as an adult, except they may “act out” their grief by
showing behavioural changes at home or at school.
Preparing A Child For A Death
It is hard for anyone to be totally prepared for someone to die, but
things around us can help us to understand that loss and death are part
of everyday life and part of everyone’s growing up.
Some ways that a child can be prepared for death is having pets. Pets
like hamsters and guinea pigs do not live very long. When they die, the
child may be upset, perhaps want to bury them or have a funeral. This
allows them to experience grief and focus their feelings.
If a child sees a dead animal, it can be useful for an adult to explain
to them what this means. For example, if they see a dead bird, the
parent could explain that it means the bird will not breathe, be hungry,
thirsty, fly, feel hot and cold, and so on, again.
Sometimes a family member may be dying, it is important to be honest
with the child. They may not want to visit the person in hospital, but
then feel guilty about it. If they truly understood how seriously ill a
person was, it might make them more willing to visit or more forgiving
of themselves if they didn’t. They may want to be with the person when
they die. They may feel that they are being “left out” if everyone else
is at the hospital and they are not. It can be helpful if a person is in
hospital for a nurse or doctor to talk to the children to explain that
they may not come home again. Telling them the truth means that they are
able to trust and rely in you.
Sometimes there is no time to prepare and the death shocks everyone.
Children may feel anger at not saying goodbye to the dead person or
because they cannot see the body, they may not believe they are dead.
The child needs to be encouraged to find way to realise that the death
is real. Perhaps by creating scrap books, holding little rituals and so
After A Death
Adding to a child's shock and confusion at the death of a brother,
sister, or parent is the unavailability of other family members, who may
be so shaken by grief that they are not able to cope with the normal
responsibility of child care.
However, death is not the only loss of a family member is not the only
loss that children may face today. There may also be the death of
friends of the same age, divorce, jail. Children will see on the
television and via the internet, all the violent and terrible things
that go on in the world. This will make them aware of death in a way
that may not have been experienced by previous generations.
Children may feel that adults may not be able to protect them. This may
cause them to “act out” inappropriate behaviour, be self-destructive
with drugs, sex or drinking etc. Not all children will respond in this
way. Children naturally assume that the world is safe and full of
kindness. They will try to answer questions, such as who am I? Why am I
here? This safety can disappear if a child begins to feel that the world
is not a nice place.
Parents should be aware of normal childhood responses to a death in the
family, as well as signs when a child is having difficulty coping with
grief. According to child and adolescent psychiatrists, it is normal
during the weeks following the death for some children to feel immediate
grief or persist in the belief that the family member is still alive.
However, long-term denial of the death or avoidance of grief can be
emotionally unhealthy and can later lead to more severe problems.
Once children accept the death, they are likely to display their
feelings of sadness on and off over a long period of time, and often at
unexpected moments. The surviving relatives should spend as much time as
possible with the child, making it clear that the child has permission
to show his or her feelings openly or freely.
The person who has died was essential to the stability of the child's
world, and anger is a natural reaction. The anger may be revealed in
boisterous play, nightmares, irritability, or a variety of other
behaviours. Often the child will show anger towards the surviving family
Typical Childhood Responses To Grief
Numbness - Feeling nothing after someone has died can seem scary to a
child, particularly if everyone else is so upset. A child may take a
while, perhaps weeks or months, to begin to feel upset, then their grief
will come out. Gradually, the child may calm down. It can be hard for
them to realise that death is permanent, that you have to live the rest
of your life without that person.
Worry - It is normal to worry about the future and who will
look after them. They may find themselves talking to the person who has
died or thinking that they are seeing them – adults can also do this
when they are grieving.
Anger - Some children may feel angry or cross without knowing
why. Sometimes adults may respond by getting angry back with the child,
which can make things worse. It is natural to feel like this when
someone close has died. Feeling angry for no particular reason is
normal. There may not be a reason or it may be that the child feels it
is unfair that someone has died and left them.
They may blame the doctors and nurses who cared for the person, thinking
they did not do enough. They may blame the person themselves, for
example, if they died due to a smoking related illness, or crashed their
car etc. They may feel angry because no one explained to them what has
happened. They may be too afraid to ask or scared about what has
happened to their loved one when they have died.
Confusion - Sometimes adults can confuse children by talking
about a dead person being “lost”. A child may feel that if they are
“lost”, that they can go and find them. This can create confusion and
make their feelings even more muddled up. They may have different people
looking after them, different ways of doing things and so on. So it is
normal for them to feeling different emotions, including confusion and
At times, a child may feel like laughing or giggling and then feeling
bad because they do. They may want to go back to school, but find it
hard to concentrate and get told off. They may then come home to a
family who is sad and everyone is thinking about the person who has
died. They may find they are not missing the person who has died as much
as everyone else, which can make them feel bad. Then they can
experience intensely the pain of losing the person. Sometimes, a child
may just want to go and play with their friends as if nothing has
happened. This is natural and perfectly ok for them to do.
Loneliness - Children may feel very lonely if a parent dies.
They may have been used to their mum being there at breakfast time or
their dad being there to read them a bedtime story and suddenly they are
gone. They may miss siblings who die. Even if they argue and fight with
them, they may miss their company and someone else to play with. One
way to deal with this is to ensure that the child has other
people/friends to play with, rather than spending time alone at home.
They may feel they are being disloyal doing this, but it is helping them
to get used to carrying on with their lives without the person being
there. Friends may help to fill in some of the gaps in their time.
Trying to pretend the dead person never existed will not help though.
Supporting A Grieving Child
It helps for children and teenagers to –
- Be told what has happened simply and honestly.
- Be reassured they are still loved and cared for.
- Be allowed to say good.
- Participate in simple rituals.
- Understand that however they feel – it is alright to feel it.
- Express emotions
- Be allowed to enjoy themselves
- Be encouraged to look forward to a time when their grief will get less, but that doesn’t mean that they will forget the person.
If you want to find out more about how to deal with grief in children
and adults, you may find the following ACS courses of interest:
Certificate In Child And Youth Counselling
If you have any questions on our courses, please contact us via our free counselling service.