Read now: At a time of bereavement
Understanding a child’s reactions when someone has died
Children’s reactions to a death is often affected by by their age, and some typical reactions are explained below. However, each child is different and any special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) will likely affect their reactions.
How do you explain to a child that someone has died?
Although it’s natural to want to protect children, sometimes the language we use can add to confusion surrounding the death. Terms such as “they’ve gone to sleep” may leave children fearful of going to sleep and never waking up. By saying “they’ve gone on a journey”, a child may expect the person to come back, or be scared of going on holiday.
Children benefit much more by hearing things such as “died”, “their body stopped working” and “when someone has died they can never come back”. This may seem insensitive but will give them greater understanding of the situation and make them better equipped to cope with it. You might say: “I’ve got some really sad news to tell you. Daddy has died. That means his body has stopped working, and he can’t come back. It’s OK to feel really sad and to cry and have a cuddle if you want to.”
What are normal grief reactions for children and young people?
When someone dies, there are so many feelings for a child or young person to cope with. It can be difficult to know when or if they need specialist bereavement support. Normal feelings include feeling sad, angry, happy, lonely, confused, proud, relieved, and numb. Many children feel it is very unfair that the person has died, and that there were lots of things left unsaid. It can really help to reassure them that these feelings are normal, and understandable.
Over time, these feelings should become more manageable, but there will always be good and bad days particularly around significant dates. However, if they are struggling with issues like low mood, anxiety, anger, or risk-taking behaviours for more than a few months, and it seems to be connected to the bereavement, it may be time to consider seeking support from us.
Try to talk about your own feelings too, as this can encourage them to share a bit more themselves.
How does bereavement affect children aged under-2 years old?
Long before they are able to talk, babies are likely to react to upset and changes in their environment brought about by the disappearance of a significant person who responded to their needs on a daily basis.
Toddlers might show a basic understanding of death when they see a dead bird or insect in the garden but they don’t usually understand the implications, such as the dead bird cannot feel anything or won’t ever get up again.
They may have difficulty settling at bedtime and need additional reassurance when separated from their care-giver. They may react to their parent/carer’s own grief responses.
How does bereavement affect children aged 2-5 years old?
Young children tend to think very literally, therefore it is important to avoid offering explanations of death such as ‘gone away’ or ‘gone to sleep’ that may cause misunderstandings and confusion.
They may struggle with abstract concepts like ‘forever’ and find it difficult to grasp that death is permanent. Their limited understanding may lead to an apparent lack of reaction when told about a death.
Children, particularly when very young, can be sad one minute and happy the next – this is completely normal.
Behaviours may change. Younger children may quickly move between visible expressions of grief and their normal behaviours. They may become more anxious when apart from other significant people, and they may find it harder to keep to their usual sleep patterns.
They might ask lots of questions, and sometimes repetitively about death. You may see death-themed play, where they re-enact what happened using their toys. This is all very normal.
How does bereavement affect children of primary school age?
Children of primary school age begin to develop an understanding that death is permanent and final. They may be fascinated with the physical aspects of death or the rituals surrounding it.
They may see death as a person who might ‘come to get you’ or ‘catch you’ if you are unlucky.
Children begin to develop their imagination and ‘magical thinking’, which reinforces the belief that their thoughts or actions caused the death and can lead them to fill in the gaps in their knowledge.
They mostly have an awareness of death having a cause and being irreversible, but at younger ages do not necessarily see it as inevitable, particularly in relation to themselves.
As they get older, children begin to have a more mature understanding of death, realising that it is final, permanent, universal and an unavoidable part of life.
Children can become fearful as a result of their deepening realisation of the possibility of their own future death.
Some may start behaving as if they’re younger than their years. It’s also common for children to feel unwell or even replicate symptoms the person who died had, such as a headache if the person had a brain injury.
How can bereavement affect adolescents?
Grief may be compounded by the normal struggles of adolescence, with young people finding it hard to ask for support while trying to show the world they are independent.
They often have their own beliefs and strongly held views and may challenge the beliefs and explanations offered by others.
Adolescents may talk at length about the death – but seldom to those closest to them in the family.
They may cope with the awareness of their own mortality through risk-taking behaviour. For example, experimenting with alcohol, putting themselves in a position of danger, and self-harming.
Explaining suicide to a child / young person
If the person died by suicide, this can make the death especially difficult to explain to children. There’s no easy time to tell a child about someone taking their own life, but the longer it’s left unsaid, the harder it becomes.
Sensitive information is always better delivered by someone the child trusts, rather than hearing it in the playground or seeing it online. It’s important to be aware that if this information is withheld from a child, they may become resentful towards the adult who didn’t tell them and lose the trust they had.
Nelson’s Journey can support parents / carers to share this information with children.
Children and young people have a right to know how their significant person died. When you tell a child what has happened you can break the sharing of information into different stages, and be guided by any questions they may have. However, you don’t have to provide all the information at the same time. It may be useful to plan what you are going to say to them before you speak to them.
o Start by explaining that the person has died.
o Give simple details about what this means (e.g their body has stopped working)
o Explain that this is something they did to themselves.
o Provide a more detailed explanation of how the person died. Try to use factual language that they will understand.
o Then you may want to explore the possible reasons why the person took their own life.
It’s OK to tell a child / young person if you don’t know the answer to a question or aren’t sure how to explain it, and to take some time to think it through and find out more information if you need to.
There’s a book available to assist adults with explaining suicide called ‘Beyond the Rough Rock’ which can be downloaded at www.winstonswish.org.uk
Supporting a child after a recent death
Should I take the children to see the person at the funeral home?
Speak to the funeral director to check it is appropriate for the children to see the person at the funeral home. If so, we suggest that you give them a choice about whether to see the person, and try to explain it as best you can so they understand what it will be like.
Going to see a loved one’s body can be very difficult for all the family. Sometimes, however, it can give children clarity and understanding of what’s happened and help them to accept that the person is dead and cannot come back.
Some children may be shocked or scared by seeing the person’s body. This is a decision that needs to be made by families, taking the child’s wishes into account. If they’re not given the opportunity, they may feel resentful in years to come.
Provided the child is given a choice and is well prepared, bereaved children often say they do not regret seeing the body. It gives them the chance to say goodbye and be reassured that their loved one is at peace – especially if the death was traumatic. It helps many children understand the reality of death and puts their minds at rest to see it’s not as bad as they imagined.
Should I take children to the funeral?
It’s a good idea to ask a child if they want to go to the funeral. If they don’t know what a funeral is, describe it and help them prepare for what to expect – who will be there and what will happen? Even young children may benefit from attending a funeral as it can be a special chance to say goodbye and they may be grateful for this when they are older.
Funerals can be a difficult time for all the family. If a parent/carer feels they’ll find it too hard to look after the children, they can ask a family member or friend to be there during the ceremony to support them.
Involve children in planning the funeral by asking what flowers they’d like, writing a letter to go in the coffin, or choosing a song to be played that was special to them.
Funerals can be confusing as sometimes they’re sad and sombre and can also be a celebration of life. Prepare children for what to expect.
Families are often unsure about the appropriateness of a child attending the funeral, but providing the proceedings are explained to the child, there’s usually no problem.
How should I explain cremation / burial?
Children usually can understand a cremation or burial, if it is explained clearly. But if we don’t give children enough information, they may assume that a burial or cremation is something else entirely and may think it is something much worse.
It may seem difficult to explain a burial or cremation to children. To make it less daunting, emphasise that when someone has died and their body has stopped working, and the person can no longer feel any pain.
When describing a burial you can say that the person is put in a special box called a coffin which, at the end of the funeral, is buried or ‘put in the ground’.
When describing a cremation, you can say that the person is put in a special box called a coffin. At the end of the funeral and after everyone has left, this is put in a very hot machine where both the coffin and body are burned (cremated), turning them to ash. Although this sounds a bit scary, it is OK because the person can’t feel anything.
Children often find it hard to understand how a person can be buried or cremated – and also be a star or in heaven. To help them understand this you can tell them that when someone dies, their body has stopped working, and it is this part that is buried or cremated. However, the part that made them special was the bit we can’t see inside them, and it is this part that is could be in heaven / a star. Different people believe different things about what happens after someone dies – everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, including children. It’s important to make children aware that people have different beliefs and nobody knows for sure.
What should I tell the school / ask them to do?
School life can offer a familiar and constant environment, particularly if the child feels that their grief is acknowledged and that they can express their feelings. It really helps to tell the school about the bereavement and explain what the child knows and understands about it, and how they seem to be reacting.
Discuss with the school about if and how the child / young person would like information to be shared.
Discuss with the school about putting in place a collaborative support plan, which could include:
o A named staff member the child feels comfortable to go to if they are feeling worried or upset.
o Arrangements should the child need “time out” during the school day (they may require a permission card) – identify a quiet, ‘safe’ place for them to go.
o Awareness that grieving can be very tiring and that the child may be experiencing lack of sleep, loss of appetite etc.
o Talking to the child’s friends to encourage them to offer support.
o Awareness that there may be days when a child is reluctant to attend school.
o Awareness that the child may have some difficulty with concentration.
Providing support in the months and years after a death
How long does grief last for?
For children as well as adults, there’s no set time in which you should feel better; it could be months, years or longer before things change. However, as time passes, you will start to feel better and adapt to life without them. You’ll feel improvements over time and find a new ‘normal’.
Everyone’s grief journey is individual and there’s no right or wrong way to grieve, just take things a day at a time.
People can be affected by a death many years down the line, and they might initially suppress feelings that re-surface in years to come.
Talking about the person who died
This will vary from family to family, but mentioning a memory of the person can reassure children that it’s good to remember them. It’s OK to talk about more difficult times with the person, and that not all memories will be positive ones. But these are just as important to talk about.
Younger children may not have many memories of their own, so sharing memories and stories can help them get a sense of who they were.
Planting something special in the garden in memory of the person who has died can provide a place to go to remember that person and talk about them.
Lighting a candle (or an electronic one) can be good to have on special occasions to show that you are thinking about the person.
Special occasions such as birthdays, going somewhere that the person liked, or having their favourite meal, can also be a good way of starting conversations.
Looking at photos and writing down memories can be a big help, as it can reassure the children that they won’t forget the person.
Is it OK for me to cry / get upset in front of the children?
It’s completely normal to feel sad and cry when someone has died. Sometimes children won’t cry in front of parents / carers because they’re trying to protect them. Adults often hide tears from children too.
If a child sees an adult crying it can make it feel normal and acceptable for them to do the same. Letting the tears out can make you feel a bit better. Sometimes it can be helpful for adults and children to cry together then have a hug.
Ideas for children / young people to express and manage emotions when they are grieving
Writing down or drawing feelings is a good way to express them.
Children can write a letter to the person to tell them how they are feeling.
For younger children, drawing the outline of a body and asking them to draw where they feel happy, sad, angry in their body can help.
Listening to children, giving them opportunities to ask questions and share any worries.
Our resources page has lots of other ideas and activity sheets to try.
Visiting the grave
Some people find it helps to visit the grave or site where the ashes are scattered, and some find this very difficult.
If you don’t have a grave to visit, then it may be useful for children to have a special place to go instead to remember their loved one. Having a plant or special part of the garden with an ornament they chose can feel more manageable for some children.
Often, children need to feel in control of their grief and to be given choices and opportunities to grieve in their own way. If a child refuses to visit the grave, speak to them about why they feel this way and what they think it will be like. It may be that a child wants to go to but not with the whole family, or to do it on their own.
By giving the child options of how and who to visit with, they may benefit from the experience. If a child refuses to go, that is their choice and needs to be respected and supported.
How to support yourself as a parent / carer
Trying to grieve yourself, while also trying to help the children, can be very difficult. Give yourself some time to focus on your own feelings. By looking after yourself, you will be more able to look after those around you.
You may wish to speak to your GP if you are struggling to manage, as they often have an understanding of local services which may be able to help.