Children grieve in their own way after a death or loss. Their reactions will depend on the nature of their loss. There is no right or wrong way to grieve.
As they get older, they understand death better and they may need to talk about their grief again.
Talking about death and loss
After a death, it’s important to tell children about the death.
Tell the child what has happened as soon as possible. The person closest to the child should tell them if possible.
Use simple and clear language that they will understand. It may seem unkind to use words such as ‘dead’. But phrases such as ‘gone to the angels’ or ‘gone to sleep’ can be confusing. Check to make sure they understand what has happened.
Talk about the person who has died. You could do this using photos, games, memory boxes or stories. This helps children to share and talk about emotions.
Signs of grief in children
The way children show grief is different from an adult.
How children react to death and loss depends on:
- their age and understanding of death
- their bond with the person who died
- the reactions of other members of the family
- their personality
Some common reactions to bereavement or loss in children include:
- emotional responses such as fear, sadness, anxiety or anger
- physical responses such as low energy, changed eating patterns, tummy aches
- social responses such as loss of self-esteem, or withdrawal from friends, activities or school
- sleep disturbances such as nightmares, waking up early or fear of the dark
- behavioural responses such as lack of concentration, memory loss, aggression or overly good behaviour
- acting like a younger child such as being clingy, wetting the bed or their clothes, or sucking their thumb
These symptoms become less intense over time. But they may reappear around special dates such as anniversaries, birthdays or Christmas.
Children may ask questions about death again as they grow older and need more information.
Supporting a child who is grieving
Most children find a way to cope with loss. It helps if they have a supportive adult to guide them and give them clear information.
There are things you can do to help with their grief:
- try to keep up a routine for the child - familiar activities can help them feel more secure
- let the child know that it is OK to feel lots of different things and who they can talk to about them
- share your feelings with them - you can say that you too feel sad, angry or fed up
- give them ways to express their grief such as drawing, making cards or using puppets
- include children in grief rituals - younger children could make a card, older children may want to view the body or take part in the funeral ceremony
- tell the child what to expect if they want to go to a removal or funeral
- tell the child's school about the changes in their life
When to get help
Most children are resilient. They can adjust to changes in their lives and settle into new routines.
But a small number of children need more help to process their grief.
Ask a GP or counsellor for advice if your child has:
- anxiety that does not go away
- persistent longing for the person who has died
- ongoing aggression
- a lack of interest in friends and activities
- self-blame or guilt about the death
- self-destructive behaviour
- a desire to hurt themselves or to be with the person who has died