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About bereavement in childhood

Most young people will have been bereaved of someone close to them (a parent, sibling, grandparent, friend, teacher) by the time they are 16. Many will cope well with their loss, but all will need the support of those around them.

Children's reactions to the death of someone close

Children's reactions to bereavement are affected by many factors. These may be to do with who has died, how they died, what their relationship was with the person who has died, how the family expresses their feelings and communicates, what other things are going on at the same time and whether their school and home community are supportive. Important factors will include the child or young person's age and understanding of what has happened, and whether they are naturally quite resilient or quite anxious.

Children tend to move through many emotions and reactions very quickly: it is sometimes described as 'puddle jumping' (while adults may wade through rivers of grief or become stuck in the middle of seas of distress). it is natural for them to be extremely upset at one minute and then wanting to know what is for tea: it does not mean they are not distressed by what has happened.

Some responses may be feelings, some may be behaviours or thoughts. The psychologist Atle Dyregrov lists the following as some of the common reactions among bereaved children:

  • anxiety 
  • insecurity and worry about other family members
  • vivid memories
  • sleep difficulties
  • sadness and longing
  • anger and acting-out behaviour
  • guilt, self-reproach and blame
  • school difficulties
  • physical health complaints

(Dyregrov, A (1991) Grief in Children: A Handbook for Adults London: Jessica Kingsley Publisher)

Maryam was two when her father died. She became quite clingy and her mother had difficulty getting her off to sleep - that had always been her father's job. She also went back to her nappies although she'd been potty trained. Her mother sometimes felt it was two steps forward and one step back.

Gary started school a couple of months after his grandmother died. He was tearful at the school gates every day and his parents weren't sure whether this was because of school nerves or because he was sad about his grandmother. He kept asking for the story of what happened to her, over and over again.

Tori's best friend died when they were fifteen. Tori couldn't believe it at first and felt as if she was walking around in a daze. She found it difficult revising for her exams although she wanted to make her friend proud. When she started at college she found she was losing her temper really easily - she felt angry that her friend hadn't had the opportunities she was getting and got irritated by people at college who seemed immature.

Chris's twin brother died suddenly when they were eight. They'd had an argument that afternoon and Chris was sad that the last things he'd said to his brother had been mean. He kept going over the afternoon again and again in his head, wishing it had been different. His teacher helped by encouraging him to write a letter to his brother, writing down all the things he wished he'd said that day.

Bereavement is a major life change and while it can be upsetting to see these reactions in a child you care for, it is not surprising. With acknowledgement and support from parents, carers, friends, teachers and others around them; children can find ways to live with, through and beyond their grief.

You can read more about the ways in which children and young people react to bereavement from the publications on our suggested reading list. 

If you are caring for a bereaved child and you are worried about the way they are reacting, you can talk your concerns through with local or national childhood bereavement services. Some services have extensive websites with information to help parents, carers, professionals and children and young people themselves.

Issues for bereaved children and young people

Bereavement can be an overwhelming experience for people of any age. What are the particular issues for children?

Recognition

Children express their grief in a variety of ways. Different feelings may emerge at different times and the intense sadness and crying associated with grief may be quite intermittent, interspersed with times of play and hilarity. This can mean that people around bereaved children sometimes don't recognise that they are grieving, or think that they are behaving inappropriately. Bereaved children have been described as 'forgotten mourners'.

Five year old Amy cried after she was told her baby sister had died, but soon asked if she could go outside to play. Her parents helped by comforting her when she was sad and accepting that she still wanted to do fun things too.

A social taboo?

As death is less likely to happen at home than in the past, children have less opportunity to learn about it as part of the life process. Childhood has become idealised as a time of carefree innocence, and death may be seen as something which is beyond the experience of children. Families and professionals may be unsure and uneasy about supporting bereaved children, who may pick up on their embarrassment and anxiety, feeling isolated and confused.

After seven year old Tom's brother had died, he and his parents talked about him a lot and comforted each other, but Tom's grandfather didn't like Tom mentioning his brother. Tom's mother helped by reminding his grandfather that Tom had been involved all through his brother's illness, and it was right for him to keep being included in conversations after he'd died.

Experience

Death can be hard to comprehend at any age, but children who have never encountered it before are unlikely to have the information they need to understand what has happened. They may have many questions about what happens when someone dies, whether the person is coming back, why they have died, what will happen to their body, whether other people are going to die and whether it is their fault.

When four year old Troy's cat Smudge was run over and killed, Troy found it difficult to understand that Smudge wasn't going to get up. He insisted that his brother should put food out for Smudge in case he got hungry in the night. By explaining carefully that Smudge didn't need his body any more and didn't need to eat or drink, Troy's brother helped him to understand that death is permanent. This made it easier for Troy to be involved in burying Smudge in the garden.

Transition

Children's lives have many changes, which may cause them to revisit their experience of bereavement. For example, leaving primary school and going to secondary school may cause them to think again about their loss.

Fourteen year old Kalisha thought she was feeling better about her aunt's death, but when she got together with her boyfriend she felt sad he would never meet her aunt. Her boyfriend helped by encouraging her to tell stories about her aunt and to show him photographs.

The death of someone close may be followed by other losses which might seem less significant but can add up to a huge change in lifestyle and routine.

  • temporary loss of support from other grieving relatives
  • financial difficulties for the family
  • moving house
  • changing school

What can help bereaved children and young people

Children and young people say that the following things can help:

  • having the death acknowledged
  • being given age-appropriate information about what has happened and what is going to happen
  • having the chance to express their feelings and thoughts about the death
  • being helped to remember
  • taking part in opportunities to say goodbye and commemorate the person who has died
  • knowing they are not to blame for what has happened
  • meeting other children and young people who have been bereaved.