Children & Grief

We are often asked  by families how to tell a child that a loved one has died or how to care for and deal with a child during their grief.

Children like adults will react to a loss in their own way sometimes completely the opposite to what the parents expect. They may verbally and physically lash out at the person closest to them or at the person who has brought them the sad news.  Some children may become withdrawn and show lack of interest in what is going on around them, perhaps they can’t take the news in all at once. Other children may start asking many varied and curious questions rather than show tears and sadness.  For the children that don’t show emotion immediately, they may be dealing with the loss in their own way and may show emotion later. It is important they are not denied the opportunity to work through their own feelings and emotions.
Firstly it is never easy for parents to talk to their children about a death of a loved one, when they too are grieving.

It is natural for parents not to want their child hurt and many parents think  by hiding the truth about death from children is protecting them, but in the long run this can cause them more harm.

Remember that children also grieve and we must allow them to do so. Loss is something that we will all experience at different times in our life. A child will experience loss at a very young age, perhaps  when they are weaned from a bottle, or loose their favourite toy or as they get older,  when a pet dies.  No matter what the loss, they need to be given time to work through their grief and adapt to the changes in their life.

It is very important that children are encouraged to ask questions and not be shut out and forced to keep their feelings to themselves. For many adults the questions that children ask may seem silly or difficult to answer, but it is important that their questions are answered. simply and truthfully.

It does not matter how simple the answer is as long as it is truthful and fulfils their questioning. The extent in which you involve children would depend on their age.

Set out below are some of the thoughts and experiences children have at certain ages.

The understanding children have about death depends a lot on their age.

0 – 2yrs
Can sense separation and loss, and express their feelings. ie a child with good sleeping or eating habits may suddenly become the opposite.
Assurance by loving care and attention  and by trying to keep the child in its regular routine can  help the child through its loss. They need to feel security.

3 – 5yrs
Children  see death as a temporary condition as often portrayed in children’s cartoons. There is talk in everyday conversations about dead leaves, flowers pets etc, which are all part of everyday life.
As they realise that death is not temporary, their questions must be answered, and it is important they feeling belonging and part of what is going on around them.

6 – 9yrs
They start to show an interest in all aspects of death and dying and have a curiosity  about funerals and cemeteries.
They realise  that death is final and that all living things die and that they too may die.
They start to associate death with cemeteries, churches,  angels, etc.
Support and reassurance that what they are experiencing is normal, is most important at this stage. Again answering their questions truthfully and simply is most important.  Ask them if you have answered their question, keep the answer at their level.

10 – Adolescence
They start to realise what death is all about, and start to learn and develop their own religious and philosophical views on life and death.
As they start to realise their own mortality, they can feel threatened by the death of someone of a similar age, and begin to deal with and work through lifes many  uncertainties.
At this age they are starting to be able to not only deal with their feelings but start to become more sensitive to the feelings of others and can give support to others suffering loss.
You still need to be sensitive to their needs, as they are not only dealing with  grief, but are also experiencing the other pressures and changes in their life at this age.

When explaining to a child that some one they have loved has died it is important to try and not  use words or phases such as

SLEEP  – (Children may become scared to go to bed to sleep in case they die)

GONE  – ( they then look for the answer where, or feel deserted by the person who has died)

LOST  –  ( they feel they may return)

IT’S GOD’S WILL –  (They have been taught God is good, so why does he take away their loved one)

GRANDMA WENT TO HOSPITAL AND DIED – (They may think hospitals make people die)

The above words and phases can give children the idea that the deceased may one day return, or can give them a fear that they  too will die.

They need to realise that life is breathing, moving,  eating, talking,  etc, and when a person dies none of these things are possible.
Children need to realise that death is a part of life, and adults should talk freely and openly to children about death and dying as this will allow healthy attitudes and help develop coping techniques.

If fears and effects of a childhood lose remain unresolved it can cause much anxiety and pain later, in adulthood. 

Signs a Grieving Child may show
Some children may change from their normal way of life while grieving.

It is wise that the Parents let the child’s teacher know about a death in the family as teachers are trained to watch for the signs, and help children through  any problems they may be having at school.

The child may change from one extreme to the other: ie.
Lack of interest in food
Angry outbursts
Being disruptive in school
Picking on other children
Day dreaming
Show lack of interest in family
Rebel against everything .

Punishment is not the answer to this behaviour.
Children need to be reassured they are still loved, and despite the problems you are having, cuddles, hugs and gentle smiles are helpful and portray to the child, love, care and security.

When there is a death in the family:
Involve children as much as possible in what is going on.  eg:

  • Get them to suggest what colour the flowers on the casket should be, and praise them for there choice when you arrive at the service.
  • Encourage them to draw a picture or write a letter and place it in the casket with their loved one.
  • Allow children to view so they too can say their final farewell. Often children need to see to believe and viewing can help them with this.
  • Allow children to attend the service. Explain to them what to expect, but don’t  go overboard as this can cause them  unnecessary fear and anxiety.
  • Take the child’s fears and anxieties seriously, don’t cut them short , deal with their questioning and feelings as they occur, otherwise they may start to bottle them up.
  • Encourage them to ask questions and talk about the loved one who has died.
  • Don’t be afraid to show your own feelings and emotions in front of children, there is nothing to be ashamed of and children should be assured of that.

If you feel you need help talking to your child about the death of a loved one or if you would like to involve your child in some way at the service or beforehand please feel free to talk to your Funeral Director or your minister.

Books that may assist Children and Adolescence.

The Story of a House on a Hill
by: Denny Chew

A Parable about death and dying, designed to help parents, grandparents, caregivers, relatives and friends enter into a gentle, healthy dialogue with young children on the subject of death.

Everybody Hurts Sometimes
by: Lois Tonkin

This book is designed to explain the stages of death and offer support and reassurance to teenagers.