Everyone can experience grief when they lose someone close to
them. They may need to spend period of time in bereavement coming
to terms with the grief.
How does a child respond to death?
Death in the family affects everyone.
Children, in particular, need to be thought about even if it is a
difficult time for the whole family.
How they react depends on a number of factors,
- How close the person who died was to the
child, and the family, is important and how involved that person
was in their lives.
- Whether the death was sudden or expected (a
relief from suffering or a ‘crushing blow’). How traumatic the
death was can also affect how they cope with it.
- The circumstances of the death also affect the
impact on the child. Each family responds in its own way to death.
Religion and culture will have an important influence on what
happens. Other factors that can make a big difference from the
child's point of view are:
- the effect of grief on other family members, especially if they
are not able to cope with giving the child the care they need
- how much practical support is available to help the family
How do children in different ages understand
The child's age and level of understanding and how the death
affects their life. Infants may feel the loss mainly because it
affects the way in which they are looked after and their daily
routine. They are very sensitive to the unhappy feelings of those
around them, and may become anxious, difficult to settle and more
needy of attention. Pre-school children usually see death as
temporary and reversible - a belief reinforced by cartoon
characters that `die' and `come to life' again.
Children from about the age of 5 are able to understand basic
facts about death:
- it happens to all living things
- it has a cause
- it involves permanent separation.
They can also understand that dead people do not need to eat
or drink and do not see, hear, speak or feel.
Most children get angry and worried, as well as sad, about
death. Anger is a natural reaction to the loss of someone who was
essential to the child's sense of stability and safety. A child may
show this anger in boisterous play, by being irritable, or in
nightmares. Anxiety is shown in `babyish' talk and behaviour, and
demanding food, comfort and cuddles.
Younger children believe that they cause what happens around
them. They may worry that they caused the death by being naughty.
Teenagers may find it difficult to put their feelings into words,
and may not show their feelings openly, for fear of upsetting
Being aware of how children normally respond to death makes it
easier for an adult to help. It also makes it easier to identify
that a child is finding it particularly hard to cope with.
Help in the early stages after
Adults sometimes try to protect children from
pain by not telling them what has happened.
Experience shows that children benefit from
knowing the truth at an early stage. They may even want to see the
dead relative. The closer the relationship, the more important this
Adults can also help children to cope by
listening to the child's experience of the death, answering their
questions, and reassuring them. Children often worry that they will
be abandoned by loved ones, or fear that they are to blame for the
death. If they can talk about this, and express themselves through
play, they can cope better and are less likely to have emotional
disturbances later in life.
Young children often find it difficult to recall memories of a
dead person without first being reminded of them. They can be very
upset by not having these memories. A photograph can be a great
source of comfort.
Children usually find it helpful to be included in family
activities, such as attending the funeral. Thought should be given
as to how to support and prepare a child for this. A child who is
frightened about attending a funeral should not be forced to go.
However, except for very young children, it is usually important to
find a way to enable them to say goodbye. For example, they can
light a candle, say a prayer, or visit the grave.
Helping later on
Once children accept the death, they are likely to display
their feelings of sadness, anger and anxiety 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 they can show their feelings
openly, without fear of upsetting others.
Sometimes a child may `forget' that the family member has
died, or persist in the belief that they are still alive. This is
normal in the first few weeks following a death, but may cause
problems if it continues.