What we know about children and grief

All children will experience the death of somebody close to them differently. Younger children may not understand what it means to die or be able to process the permanence of death, but they will each grieve in their own way. Older primary-aged children begin to understand that death is permanent and may begin to worry about other loved ones dying. 

At SeeSaw we believe that, just as dying is a natural part of living, all reactions too are natural and normal responses to grief. Reactions may vary depending on the child’s age and stage of development, their character, and the existence of secure and supportive relationships with their caregivers. 

 

 

Common Grief Reactions In Primary Age Children

6-9 Years

Common grief reactions

  • Regression in behaviours 
  • Anxiety 
  • Aggressive behaviours 
  • Nightmares 
  • Magical thinking’ in which they may feel that something they did or said contributed to the death 
  • Acting out 
  • Fear that other family members may die 
  • Separation anxiety  
  • Repeated questions about death or the person who has died 
  • ‘Puddle jumping’ where children move in and out of their grief, sometimes attributing feelings of sadness to the death rather than to being upset for some other reason.  

How to help

  • Maintain familiar and regular routines as much as possible  
  • Give clear, honest, ageappropriate answers to questions 
  • If a child asks a question they are ready for an answer  
  • Use phrases like “I wonder if you are feeling…” or “Tell me a bit more about what you are thinking…”  
  • Help children to understand and express their feelings   
  • Model your own grief reactions so that they learn it is safe and normal to express emotions  
  • Give lots of affection and reassurance 
  • Encourage all normal activities and time for fun  
  • Empathise with them and validate their feelings 

9-12 Years

Common grief reactions

  • By this age children usually understand the
    finality of death 
  • They may develop a fear of death for self and others 
  • Sadness 
  • Anxiety 
  • Anger 
  • Tearfulness 
  • Anger 
  • Mood swings 
  • Questions about the death and what happens after death 

How to help

  • Maintain familiar and regular routines as much as possible  
  • Give clear, honest, ageappropriate answers to questions 
  • Be clear on expectations and boundaries 
  • Normalise their grief reactions 
  • Be available to talk about their emotions 
  • Offer space to discuss the person who has died 
  • Model your own grief reactions so that they learn it is safe and normal to express emotions  
  • Give lots of affection and reassurance 
  • Encourage all normal activities and time for fun  
  • Empathise with them and validate their feelings 
  • Involve them in planning goodbye rituals and funerals if they want to contribute 

Talking about death with children

Talking to children about death and dying is difficult when your natural instinct might be to protect them from such information. However, in our experience, not talking to children about a death can lead to confusion and sometimes regret and resentment later. Children will cope with, and process, even the most difficult information. Where they are not told, they may begin to imagine scenarios to fill in the gaps.  

Younger children understand their world in concrete terms therefore euphemisms like “gone to sleep”, “became a star”, “lost” or “passed over” are not helpful and can be confusing. Instead give clear, honest, age-appropriate explanations using simple language at the child’s pace. Do not be afraid to use the words “died” or “dead”. 

When breaking news to children that someone important has died, you may want to:  

  • begin by saying, “I have something very sad to tell you…”  
  • find a quiet and comfortable place to break the news, somewhere where you will not be disturbed 
  • allow unhurried time for the child to respond and ask any questions  
  • simply start by telling the child that the person has died. This may be enough at first 
  • follow the child’s lead for more information – if they ask a question they are probably ready for the answer, so again simply reply to the question. Avoid giving too much information or detail 
  • be prepared to follow this up later with further simple explanations or repetition of the information you have already given 

What children need from their caregivers

Young children need physical contact to feel safe and secure – gentle rocking, stroking, carrying or cuddling.  

It is by repeating questions that young children will gradually understand what has happened.  

Young children need to know that it is ok to have fun and to play and do normal activities. Having fun does not mean that they have forgotten the person who died.  

Help young children to express difficult feelings in safe ways by talking about how they are feeling. Talk about different feelings using pictures or storybooks.  

Remembering can be healing so offer opportunities to talk about the person who died. Look at photographs together, tell funny stories, and remember special times as well as the difficult ones. Young children may have few memories of the person who died so building a bigger picture of them will be important – things they did when they were little, where they lived, favourite hobbies, foods etc.  

Your hope and faith in their ability to recover may be needed when theirs fails.  

How parents and carers model this will be crucial. This is why, at SeeSaw, we encourage adults to take care of themselves in order to look after their children. Just as on an aeroplane the instruction in the safety briefing is to put on your own air pressure safety mask before fitting your child’s, so it is following a bereavement. This might be by seeking your own support through grief counselling with a charity such as Cruse.  

School support

  • A return to a normal routine can be a way of managing their grief and escaping some of the feelings at home. Often the person who has died hasn’t been part of the school day, so being in school can give some respite from what has happened. However, some children may want to stay close to family members in those early days after the death. Even within the same family children may want to go back to school at different times.  
  •  Before children return to school it is advisable to make contact with the headteacher or head of year to tell them what has happened.  
  •  Talk to your child about what they think will be most helpful in making the return to school.  
  •  Decide with your child how they would like information about the death shared with staff and pupils. Some children like to be there when their classmates are told, or even do it themselves; others prefer not to be. Older children may not want a general announcement but prefer to choose who should know and tell them themselves. 
  • Schools will usually recognise the needs of bereaved children and accommodate what works best for the child and the family in terms of a later start time or shorter days.
  • Children can become anxious about separating from a parent or carer when someone in the family has died. Depending on the nature of the death they may worry that something else ‘bad’ might happen while they are at school. Children will therefore need lots of reassurance at this time to resume normal routines.  

Seeking Help

Over time, most children cope well with the death of a close family member. However, if you are concerned that your child is feeling overwhelmed by their emotions or that their grief reactions are extreme or persistent, speak to your GP for advice and support. 

Useful Links

SeeSaw Website 

 CBUK 

 Winston’s Wish  

Resources

SeeSaw General Bereavement

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Suggested Readings

A Sky of Diamonds

by Camille Gibbs

When Mia learns that her mother has died, all the colour in her world changes to a dreary grey. She feels guilty, angry, sad and lost (sometimes all at once!), and she doesn’t know what to do to feel better. Little by little, with the help of her Dad, Mia learns how to cope with her difficult feelings. Together, they remember her mother by creating memory boxes, and they even get rid of anger by crazily sloshing paints and punching holes in newspapers! In the end, Mia finds her own, very special way of coping. When she feels sad or lonely, she looks up to the stars.

The huge bag of worries

by Virginia Ironside

A compelling picture book which can be used as a spring board into what worries children today. The lively, comic-style pictures and the general nature of the worries make this excellent for any number of problems. The message of the book is clear—find someone who will listen and talk about your worries.

The Invisible String

by Patrice Karst

Whether it’s a loved one far away, or a parent in the next room, this delightful book illustrates a new way to cope with something all children and parents confront sooner or later; a child’s fear of loneliness and separation. Here is a warm and delightful lesson teaching young and old that we aren’t ever really alone.

What to Do When You Dread Your Bed

by Dawn Huebner

A guide to overcoming sleep problems

The heart and the bottle

by Oliver Jeffers

In this deeply moving story, Oliver Jeffers deals with the weighty themes of love and loss with an extraordinary lightness of touch and shows us, ultimately, that there is always hope.

The Scar

by Charlotte Moundlic

The Scar. A little boy responds to his mother’s death in a genuine, deeply moving story leavened by glimmers of humor and captivating illustrations. When the boy in this story wakes to find that his mother has died, he is overwhelmed with sadness, anger, and fear that he will forget her.