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:
- 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