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Bereavement

Kids give advice on how to cope with grief | #UniteInMemory | Marie Curie

We asked four young people who've experienced bereavement to share their thoughts and tips on dealing with grief. Over a million people have been bereaved du...

How children understand death 

Under six months

At this age, babies will have no understanding of death, but will notice if their main caregiver (eg mum or dad) is absent.

Some common reactions include:

  • feeding and sleeping difficulties
  • crying
  • being worried.

Six months to two years

At this age, children still won't have any understanding of death, but they will be very upset if their main caregiver is absent.

At around two, children start to notice the absence of other people eg a familiar grandparent.

Some common reactions include:

  • loud crying, being inconsolable
  • anger about changes to their daily routine
  • sleep problems and tummy aches
  • looking for the person and asking where they are.

Two to five years

At this age, children may talk about death but don’t understand it and think that it’s reversible. They may ask questions such as ‘If grandma’s in the ground, how does she breathe?’

They may also believe in ‘magical thinking’ and may think they are directly responsible for the death.

Some common reactions include:

  • asking the same questions repeatedly
  • needing reassurance that you’re not going to die too and death is not their fault
  • clingy behaviour and behaving inappropriately for their age.

Five to ten years

At age seven, most children understand that death is permanent and inevitable. Some children may take longer than this.

They are aware of death, and they may worry that you or others may die too.

 

 

They may be fascinated by what happens when someone dies. 

They can show compassion for someone who’s bereaved. They may worry about the effect on you if they’re sad and try to hide their feelings.

Some common reactions include:

  • withdrawal, sadness, loneliness
  • getting angry more often, difficulty concentrating at school
  • regressive behaviour
  • trying to be brave and control things.

Adolescents

Adolescents normally have a better understanding of death and can think about the long-term impact it will have on their lives.

They may worry more about changes to the routine, like who will take care of them or look after the house. They might worry about things like finances or the future.

Some common reactions include:

  • Finding it difficult to talk about their feelings or wanting to talk to friends rather than adults.
  • Feeling sadness, anger or guilt. Their emotions may be quite intense. 
  • Feeling worse about themselves. 
  • Wishing it hadn’t happened, or wondering why it had to happen to them. 
  • Changes in how well they do at school or work. 
  • Worrying they might develop the illness which the person died of (especially if they were related).

Changes in behaviour 

Children may not have words for how they feel, but you can watch for changes in their behaviour, which could be their way of expressing feelings they can’t talk about. These could include:

  • Clinginess. Refusing to be left behind and clinging to you can be a sign the child needs reassurance you aren’t going to die and leave them too.
  • Distance. Some children can put up a barrier with other members of the family because they’re scared of getting hurt again. They might want to spend more time away from home, with friends or at school.
  • Aggression. This may be the child’s way of expressing helplessness in the face of loss.
  • Regression. Acting younger than their age can be a sign of insecurity. Young children may start wetting or soiling themselves, or wanting a long-forgotten bottle or dummy.
  • Lack of concentration. The child may find it hard to concentrate at school and fall behind with their work.
  • Sleep problems. Children may find it hard to sleep and become afraid of the dark.
  • Trying too hard. Young children believe their behaviour can influence events. They might think if they behave really well and do things such as eating broccoli and cleaning out the hamster cage their mum might come back to life.

These are all natural reactions and they will pass. However, if you have any concerns, there are people out there you can talk to. Winston’s Wish  , the Childhood Bereavement Network   and Child Bereavement UK   are organisations which can offer information and support for children who are grieving. There are more places which can offer support on grief in our directory of useful organisations.

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