The death of a loved one is painful and complicated for adults, but for children facing a loss for the first time it can be as confusing as it is upsetting. Here are some ways you can support them and things you can expect as they grieve.
What are loss and grief?
Loss and grief can both have a significant effect on people psychologically. Loss is usually associated with something that could come back while grief can be something more permanent, like divorce or the death of a friend or family member. What makes working through grief following a death so difficult is the process of realization and acceptance that this person is not going to come back.
How do children grieve?
A child’s reaction to the death of a loved one will vary depending on their age and previous life experiences. All children are different, and the below examples of age-related responses can be applied to children of different ages and intellectual ability.
Small children under the age of 5 years often do not understand that death is permanent and may ask if the person who has died is coming back. They may exhibit other behaviours such as clinging to their caregiver or show some regressive behaviours like wetting the bed. These behaviours are very common and will usually stop after a certain amount of time has passed.
Older children between the ages of 6 and 11 years start to understand that death is forever (though some 6-year-olds will still struggle with this concept) and may worry that other loved family members and friends will die. They may start to ask more questions and want to understand what happened. They may show their grief through anger and experience physical aches or pains.
Adolescents and young teenagers from around the age of 12 years understand that death is irreversible and happens to everyone, including themselves. They are often interested in understanding why things happen. Their reactions will vary and can include apathy, anger, extreme sadness and poor concentration.
Remember, there is no “correct” way to grieve, and no specific stages in which different emotions or behaviours should appear. Children’s reactions will vary enormously depending on their age, their intellectual ability, their relationship with the person who died, how other family members are responding and the culture and society in which they live.
How do I tell my child that their loved one has died?
The most important thing is not to hide the truth and not to delay the truth. It is natural to want to protect your child, but it is best to be honest. Telling your child what happened will also increase their trust in you and help them to better cope with the loss of their loved one.
Try to find a safe and quiet place to speak to your children and think through what you are going to say. Ask the children to sit with you. If it is a young child and they have a favourite object, toy or comforter they like to carry, let them have it. Speak slowly and pause often, to give them time to understand, and to give yourself time to manage your own feelings.
Be empathetic and be honest with children of all ages, but make sure to be especially clear with young children and do not include euphemisms. Saying something like “we ‘lost’ someone” will further confuse a young child because they won’t understand what that means. Psychologist Dr. Lisa Damour recommends the following: “It’s more useful for adults to warmly and tenderly say: ‘I have some very sad news to share. Your grandparent has died. That means his body stopped working, and we won’t get to see him again.’ It can be hard for parents to use such direct language, but it’s important to be honest and transparent.”
You will need to give children time to absorb this information. Young children may react by appearing not to listen. Be patient and wait for their attention. Also be prepared for younger children to ask the same questions again and again, both at this moment and over the days and weeks to come.
Check for any “magical” thinking. Some children may worry that they said or did something that caused the death. Children of all ages may feel guilty, so check to see if they feel responsible in any way.
You could ask: “Are you worried that Daddy has died because of anything you said or did?” Explain in simple terms what happened and reassure them that they are not to blame. For example: “You did nothing wrong. It was a germ that made Daddy sick and stopped him breathing. He could have caught it anywhere. There was nothing anyone could do, and nobody was to blame.”
Is it okay for me to grieve in front of my child?
It’s completely fine – and natural – for you to show you are sad in front of your child. Try to prepare yourself so that you don’t alarm your child with your reaction, but do be honest. If you are sad and crying, tell them how you are feeling and reassure them that there is nothing wrong with showing your feelings and expressing those feelings to others. This will help children to better name, experience, and show their own feelings.
How can I help my child cope with their grief?
Mourning is an important way for children and adults to come to terms with losing a loved one. It is important for children to be involved in any way that you find appropriate and with which they feel comfortable. Mourning enables your child to accept the death of their loved one, celebrate their life and to say goodbye.
Find a way to hold a commemoration to celebrate and show how significant that person was for all of you. Find ways for your child to connect to the dead person, show their love and show the importance of that person in their life. Children may like to paint a picture, read a poem, or something they have written about that person or sing a song.
All families will have different spiritual beliefs or cultural practices. If your family is a member of a particular faith, it can be helpful to contact your spiritual leader who may support you in explaining the death, and provide comfort to both you and your children.
How can I protect my child’s mental health following the death of a loved one?
Here are some important ways you can help your child feel better and protect their mental health:
- Continue to provide the child with loving and consistent care from you, a parent, relative or carer, whom they trust and know well.
- Infants and young children continue to feel secure and loved through loving physical contact, singing, cuddling and rocking.
- Normal life routines and structure are maintained as much as is possible. Try to keep a regular pattern to the day with time for activities, such as cleaning, schoolwork, exercise and play.
- If children display challenging and/or regressive behavior, try to understand it is their way of showing what they cannot verbalize, and do not punish them.
- Ensure that other children in the child’s life are informed through their teachers or parents about what happened, so that they can support the child on their return to school.
Remember to also take care of your own physical and mental wellbeing. You are grieving as well. It can be hard to support your children while dealing with your own feelings, which is why it is very important that you take time for yourself and take care of yourself. You cannot help your children if you are unwell. Get sufficient sleep, eat properly, exercise, take time to relax (for example through listening to music) and also have someone to whom you can turn to for emotional support. Try to avoid any harmful practices such as increased alcohol consumption.
Children of primary school age
Between the ages of 5 and 7 years, children gradually begin to develop an understanding that death is permanent and irreversible and that the person who has died will not return.
Encourage your child to talk about his or her emotions. Suggest other ways to express feelings, such as writing in a journal or drawing a picture. Without overwhelming your child, share your grief with him or her. Expressing your emotions can encourage your son or daughter to share his or her own emotions.How do you tell a 7 year old someone has died? ›
Talk VERY slowly and honestly. To avoid any confusion, you must be very clear the person has died; use the words your family prefers when talking about death. Avoid 'gone to sleep', 'passed away', 'lost' or 'gone to the stars' as young children will be confused and think the person can come back.Should death be discussed with children? ›
Many adults avoid talking to children about death and dying because they think it will make them sad or anxious. In fact, talking openly about death helps children to deal with the idea and makes them less worried about it. This is true even for young children.Why is it important to talk to children about death? ›
Avoid euphemisms such as “lost”, “sleeping”, or “passed away”, which can be confusing to children. Explain that death means a person's body doesn't work anymore, usually because they were very, very, very sick or hurt or old. Children need to know that death is permanent.How do you tell an 8 year old their grandma died? ›
- Tell the truth about what happened right away. ...
- Be prepared for a variety of emotional responses. ...
- Make sure to use the words dead or died. ...
- Share information in doses. ...
- Be comfortable saying, "I don't know." Having all the answers is never easy, especially during a time of such heartache. ...
Clear, honest and age-appropriate information, and answering their questions. 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.How does a sudden death in the family affect a child? ›
Any death can be difficult for a child, and a wide range of emotional and behavioral responses are common including changes in sleeping pattern or appetite; sad, angry, or anxious feelings; social isolation; persistent thoughts about the death; or feeling the person's presence nearby.What does unresolved grief look like? ›
Hostility, irritability, or agitation toward someone connected to the death. Withdrawal and detachment from family, friends, or at school. Lack of trust in others. Problems sleeping (fear of being alone at night)Why families fall apart after a death? ›
Even though we're all certain to die one day, most people can leave the planning to the last minute, or not at all. This failure to plan is one of the most common reasons some families fall apart when a loved one dies. A combination of heightened emotions, financial strain, and grief causes estrangement in families.
Explaining to young children
When a body dies, it stops working and can never work again. The body doesn't think or feel anymore so it doesn't get cold or hungry and it can't feel pain. The body can never come back to life. It's best to explain that “the body” includes the person's head.
From about age 9 or 10 through adolescence, children start to recognize that death is irreversible and that they too will die someday. This concept may cause some kids an intense amount of fear.When someone is dying what do they see? ›
Visual or auditory hallucinations are often part of the dying experience. The appearance of family members or loved ones who have died is common. These visions are considered normal. The dying may turn their focus to “another world” and talk to people or see things that others do not see.How does the death of a mother affect a son? ›
Children who experience parental loss are at a higher risk for many negative outcomes, including mental issues (e.g., depression, anxiety, somatic complaints, post-traumatic stress symptoms), shorter schooling, less academic success, lower self-esteem5, and more sexual risk behaviors6.Is Death at a Funeral OK for kids? ›
Death at a Funeral is rated R by the MPAA for language, drug content and some sexual humor.Do kids understand when a parent dies? ›
They begin to understand that someone is gone and can also understand that the biological processes have stopped but there may be a sense that they will return eventually. The Children's Grief Association provides a detailed, helpful guide to understanding death from a developmental perspective.Should children speak at a funeral? ›
There are a number of different factors to consider, but most agree that, generally, children should be given the chance to grieve and say their goodbyes, assuming they are comfortable doing so.What we call a child whose parents are dead? ›
An orphan is a child whose parents have died.Why is losing a grandparent so hard? ›
Grieving a grandparent as a teenager or adult can also feel as though it hits harder, as you've had a longer relationship and are more aware of the details around what happened to them. Being told to pack this despair neatly away because they were "just" your parent's parent is more cutting than people realize.How do I know if my child is grieving? ›
They also may express their grief uncharacteristically, such as through anger outbursts, irritability and bullying behavior. They may exhibit physical symptoms, moodiness, changes in sleeping and eating patterns, indifference toward schoolwork, or isolation from their peers.
By age 7 or so, most children understand the permanence of death. A school-age child is also old enough to attend a funeral, but only if he wants to. Give your child the choice of whether he wants to go or not, without any pressure or coercion to go, Markham advised.Should 5 year old go to grandparents funeral? ›
As a general guideline, children should be allowed to attend a wake, funeral and burial if they want to. They can also be involved in the funeral planning. Joining family members for these rituals gives the child a chance to receive grief support from others and say goodbye in their own way to the person who has died.How do you help a grieving grandchild? ›
Be compassionate: Give the grandparent permission to express their feelings without fear of criticism. Don't instruct, or set expectations about how they should respond. Never say, “I know how you feel.” You don't. Listen with your heart: Listen attentively and try to understand.Is a parent dying considered trauma? ›
Losing a parent is grief-filled and traumatic, and it permanently alters children of any age, both biologically and psychologically. Nothing is ever the same again; the loss of a mother or father is a wholly transformative event.How do children react to the death of a parent? ›
Often the child will show anger towards the surviving family members. After a parent dies, many children will act younger than they are. The child may temporarily become more infantile, need attention and cuddling, make unreasonable demands for food, talk baby talk, and even start wetting their beds at night.What are the 7 stages of death? ›
The 7 stages of grief
- Shock. Feelings of shock are unavoidable in nearly every situation, even if we feel we have had time to prepare for the loss of a loved one. ...
- Denial. ...
- Anger. ...
- Bargaining. ...
- Depression. ...
- Acceptance and hope. ...
- Processing grief.
Masked grief is grief that the person experiencing the grief does not say they have –– or that they mask. This can be common among men, or in society and cultures in which there are rules that dictate how you must act, or appear following the loss of someone close to you.What is the difference between mourning and grieving? ›
➢ Grief is what we think and feel on the inside when someone we love dies. Examples include fear, loneliness, panic, pain, yearning, anxiety, emptiness etc. ➢ It is the internal meaning given to the experience of loss. ➢ Mourning is the outward expression of our grief; it is the expression of one's grief.How long is too long grieving? ›
Contact your doctor or a mental health professional if you have intense grief and problems functioning that don't improve at least one year after the passing of your loved one.What is grief hijacking? ›
you're doing and then immediately jumps in with their. own story. Even though it often happens with the best. intentions, it can feel not so great for the grieving.
Facial muscles may relax and the jaw can drop. Skin can become very pale. Breathing can alternate between loud rasping breaths and quiet breathing. Towards the end, dying people will often only breathe periodically, with an intake of breath followed by no breath for several seconds.What happens to the brain during mourning? ›
Your brain is on overload with thoughts of grief, sadness, loneliness and many other feelings. Grief Brain affects your memory, concentration, and cognition. Your brain is focused on the feelings and symptoms of grief which leaves little room for your everyday tasks.What is the first thing to do after a parent dies? ›
- Notify Family Members and Friends. ...
- Give Yourself Time To Grieve. ...
- Find a Trustworthy Funeral Service. ...
- Make Copies of Everything. ...
- Contact Your Parent's Doctor and Ask for a Copy of Their Medical Records. ...
- Obtain Copies of Death Certificates.
- Prepare yourself. ...
- Be honest, and don't wait. ...
- Be thoughtful about who informs the child. ...
- Let the child's questions guide the conversation. ...
- Keep the age of the child in mind. ...
- Keep the lines of communication open. ...
- Seek support. ...
- Let your children be children.
- Use simple words to talk about death. ...
- Listen and comfort. ...
- Put feelings into words. ...
- Tell your child what to expect. ...
- Explain events that will happen. ...
- Give your child a role. ...
- Help your child remember the person. ...
- Give comfort and reassure your child.
They may fear their own death because of uncertainty of what happens to them after they die. Fear of the unknown, loss of control, and separation from family and friends can be the school-aged child's main sources of anxiety and fear related to death.What is the last breath before death called? ›
Gasping is a brainstem reflex; it is the last respiratory pattern prior to terminal apnoea. Gasping is also referred to as agonal respiration and the name is appropriate because the gasping respirations appear uncomfortable, causing concern that the patient is dyspnoeic and in agony.How soon after death do you go to heaven? ›
We enter heaven immediately upon our death, or our souls sleep until the second coming of Christ and the accompanying resurrection. Most have chosen to believe what the Bible appears to overwhelmingly propose: our souls (spirits) penetrate heaven immediately after we take our final breath.What are the signs of last days of life? ›
- Breathing difficulties. Patients may go long periods without breathing, followed by quick breaths. ...
- Drop in body temperature and blood pressure. ...
- Less desire for food or drink. ...
- Changes in sleeping patterns. ...
- Confusion or withdraw.
- “How are you doing?”
- “You'll be okay after a while.”
- “I understand how you feel.”
- “You shouldn't feel that way.”
- “Stop crying.”
- “At least he's in a better place; his suffering is over.”
- “At least she lived a long life, many people die young.”
- “She brought this on herself.”
Losing a parent is often painful and each person experiences the loss differently. This pain and grief can be intensified when we talk with our children, who struggle with understanding death (as we all do!). Children under 3 need simple, straightforward, and truthful explanations about what has happened.Should I tell my 3 year old about death? ›
' " Making death a part of normal conversations, as Beltran did, is vital for children of all ages, experts say. But young ones especially benefit because the concept of life being over is confusing, and they usually don't have the vocabulary to fully express how they're feeling.Should 4 year olds ask about death? ›
It may be unsettling to hear your preschooler talking about death but it's developmentally normal. At this age, they're obsessed with the “whys” of the world. They're trying to make sense of everything in the world around them… including death.Does a 2 year old understand death? ›
Infants and toddlers do not understand death, but they can sense what their caregiver is experiencing. Take care of yourself and recognize your own need to grieve. Keep as many routines as possible intact. Routine is a protective force for children amid major disruptions.How do you explain death to little children? ›
Gently but directly, use the words 'dead' and 'died' within short explanations. Using euphuisms and vague language often creates fear in children. Phrases like “Passed away, gone to sleep, he's with grandma, lost their life” do not explain in concrete terms that their loved one has died.Should I let my 4 year old go to a funeral? ›
As a general guideline, children should be allowed to attend a wake, funeral and burial if they want to. They can also be involved in the funeral planning. Joining family members for these rituals gives the child a chance to receive grief support from others and say goodbye in their own way to the person who has died.How do 5 year olds perceive death? ›
They may believe that death happens to only old or very sick people, or that they can escape death through their own efforts. They also might view death as a punishment, particularly before age nine. Sometimes they are unable to comprehend how the death will affect their life, a possible source of anxiety.