Children and young people have a limited ability to put feelings and thoughts into words and tend to show feelings with behaviours rather than words. Reactions will vary greatly as children absorb and process information in different ways at different ages.
The following reactions are common, and are likely to settle over time with reassurance, acknowledging what has happened and their feelings, giving them clear and age-appropriate information, and keeping to normal routines.
Picking up on tension and distress
Children pick up on tension, distress or anxiety in adults, and may mirror this in their own behaviour. Even babies sense that something important is missing, and may cry more than usual. Children of all ages may be clingy or unsettled
Appearing not to react
Children under 6 years old do not understand that death is permanent. Children cannot handle strong emotions for long periods, and may jump quickly in and out of grief (‘puddle jumping’). When told that someone important has died, some children may look blank and ask ‘can I play’ or ‘what’s for tea?’ They may have heard, but they are not able to process what that means yet. They may react later with sudden crying, outbursts, changes in behaviour or asking questions.
Asking questions and exploring what death means
Children may ask repeatedly: “When’s granny coming back?” or “Where has she gone?” even though they’ve been told clearly what has happened. They may hunt everywhere for a ‘lost’ person, and so a clear explanation of what ‘died’ means may help. Children may play games where the person dies, or is still alive. They may seem fascinated with death, play-act about death or ask repeatedly about it. All of these are ways that children show that they are processing their understanding of what has happened.
Feeling anxious or insecure
When someone dies, a child’s sense of safety is rocked. They may not want to leave you, and may cling to you or follow you everywhere. They may behave as if they are younger: being very quiet or tearful, having temper flare-ups, sucking their thumb, being reluctant to do things they used to do with confidence, or wetting the bed.
Try to keep to normal routines which will help them feel safe, and keep them informed about plans for the days ahead. Tell them who will take them to school or activities. If you need to leave them, tell them when you will be home, or who will be looking after them.
Include them in simple decision-making that affects them. If the person who died was ill, address any fears about the illness (for example that it is not catching), and reassure them that you are not ill and not leaving them.
Anger and other strong emotions are natural reactions to sad or shocking news, and some children and young people may not be able to understand or manage their own feelings. They may feel angry at the person who died, at family, at themselves or at the world in general.
It can help to tell them it is understandable for them to be angry, as long as they don’t hurt themselves or anyone else. Safe ways to release anger include hitting cushions, vigorous physical exercise, messy painting sessions, or going outside to shout very loudly.
Another idea is a ‘safe zone’ where they can go to calm down. This could be a quiet corner with familiar items that help them to feel safe.
Looking after adults or feeling responsible
As children realise that death is permanent, they also become aware that it happens to other people including themselves. They may be protective and try to look after their important adults and siblings. They may feel that they were somehow responsible for the death.
Primary aged children may show ‘magical thinking’ where they think ‘if I do this, Dad will come back’. They may behave very well to compensate for what’s happened, or behave less well-behaved because they feel angry or guilty.
Denying what has happened or taking risks
Bereavement can be overwhelming, and can bring huge changes, alongside other challenges that young people face as they grow up. They may want to forget or deny the death or how strongly they feel. They may feel ‘what’s the point?’ with school or social activities. Some young people may be impulsive or take risks, in an attempt to get back some control in a life that for them currently feels very out of control.
What helps grieving children and young people
Every child is unique and will cope with the death of someone important in their own way. There is no magic formula but things that help include:
- Clear, honest and age-appropriate information.
- Reassurance that they are not to blame and that different feelings are OK.
- Normal routines and a clear demonstration that important adults are there for them.
- Time to talk about what has happened, ask questions and build memories.
- Being listened to and given time to grieve in their own way.
Children and Young people palliative hubWinston’s WishFamily Support NI