Understanding Grief in Children & Young People

If the death of someone close is a shattering experience for adults, who can think it through and rationalise it in some kind of way, then it is also true for children and young people who have little or no experience of loss on which to base their coping.

So often we are told that children and young people are resilient, that they do not really understand these things, or that they need to be protected. Children and young people grieve in a very real way, as their age and understanding of death allows.  Frequently they have questions, some of which can be upsetting for adults. If children and young people feel their questions are not heard, or not respected, they may bottle up their feelings and possibly have more serious problems with this death, or others, in the future.

The following offers information and advice about how to help children and young people cope with their grief.

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We need to be honest with children and young people, telling them the person has died, explaining what this means in words that they will understand at whatever age they are. The words that we use are important. For example, if we describe the person who has died as having “passed away”, children may not understand and be confused. If children are told the person has “fallen asleep”, they may develop a fear of going to bed in case they die too. Religious explanations can be helpful only if they are part of a family’s ongoing religious faith.

The death of someone close will often create new thoughts in a child or young person about the fact that they, or others close to them, could die too. Again, be honest - everybody dies some time, but most people live a long time. It is important to help children and young people to understand that death is natural - all living things die, accidents happen, and illness and old age are all part of the life cycle of people and animals.

Children and young people may feel hurt or angry that the person has gone, or may feel that it is because of something they have said or done. We need to allow children and young people to express these feelings, and to reassure them that they are not to blame. It is important to help them to reflect on the fact that the person who has died loved them, and that that love goes on.

Children will move in and out of their grief - sad and tearful one moment, and perhaps playing or making what adults feel are inappropriate remarks the next. Sometimes this is a way of testing adults to see if it is alright to feel that way. It is important that those caring for children recognise this range of feelings and try to offer support.

Young people may find bereavement particularly hard as they are already in a state of change moving from childhood to adulthood. They may experience feelings very similar to those of adults; they may be less willing to share their feelings or ask for help; their behaviour may change; they may become introverted or isolated; they may start to take risks or become involved in anti-social behaviour. 

Like adults, children need to understand that grief is a journey. When they feel really upset, it helps to know that others are upset too, but that in time the pain will ease.

Adults often worry about whether or not children and young people should view the body or attend the funeral. Much will depend on the individual child or young person, and it is important to give them a choice and listen to what they say. If they are to be present, then they should be prepared by telling them what will happen. Your funeral director may be able to help you with this. It may also be helpful to tell the person conducting the funeral that there are to be children present.

Younger children can be given the opportunity to draw or write something to be placed with or in the coffin; older children and young people often appreciate being asked for ideas for the funeral - for example a special piece of music or a favourite memory which can be shared with others.

It is important that children and young people are supported by their teachers on returning after a bereavement. Speak to the school to tell them about the death as it will help teachers to make their return to school easier. It is important that your child knows what support is available at school and how they can access this.