Supporting a Bereaved Child

Advice for those caring for and supporting a child who is grieving for a loved one

Last updated: 30 November 2016

The loss of a loved one has a significant impact on a child and it is essential that they are given support and love as they come to terms with the loss. Caring for bereaved children, whether you are their parent, guardian or other relative, can be challenging because children think about death and loss in very different ways to adults.

Grief at different ages

The way children cope with grief may partially depend on their age, as this will affect how much they are able to understand the concept of death. Every child is different, but generally grief tends to appear in the following ways:

  • Babies and young toddlers will have a very limited understanding. They may be aware of someone important missing, but they will not understand why. This may disrupt their sleep pattern or make them harder to comfort when they are crying.
  • Toddlers, up to five or six years old, will better understand that their loved one is missing, although they may not fully understand that they are gone forever. They may have a lot of questions as they seek to fill in the gaps in their knowledge.
  • Children roughly between the ages of six and 12 will likely understand that death is permanent and they will never see their loved one again. They may develop an intense fear of death. They may also experience guilt, believing that they are somehow to blame for the loss.
  • Teenagers may experience grief similarly to an adult, but are usually less able to express their feelings in a healthy way. The challenges and uncertainty of this time of life can make grief even harder to cope with.

Changes in behaviour

Adults may use words to express how they feel, but children often have not yet developed the social and verbal skills to do this. Instead, their emotions come out in how they behave. You may see the following behaviour in children who are grieving:

  • Becoming excessively clingy and needy, usually from a fear of being abandoned.
  • Distancing themselves, refusing to talk to family members, in order to protect themselves from further pain.
  • Crying and grieving intensely one minute, then happily playing the next.
  • Laughing or playing at what may feel like inappropriate times, for example during the funeral or while others are crying.
  • Behaving aggressively, both physically and verbally, as a way of expressing their anger at being left by a loved one.
  • A lack of concentration at school.
  • Disrupted sleep patterns, an inability to get to sleep or fear of the dark.
  • What is known as ‘regressive behaviour’, such as wetting the bed or playing with food, long after they have grown out of this behaviour.
  • Purposefully behaving badly in order to be punished, as they secretly feel the loss is their fault somehow.
  • Being excessively polite and good in order to ‘make up’ for doing something bad, which they secretly believe must be the reason for the loss.

If the child you are caring for is displaying any of these behaviours, do not worry. These are normal reactions to grief and should pass with time. If their behaviour becomes disruptive and lasts for many months after the funeral, contact a bereavement support organisation or your family doctor for further advice and specialist help. Many organisations offer counselling for children and other kinds of therapy that may help.

It is important to remember that children ‘dip’ in and out of grief. They may seem completely overwhelmed by sadness one moment, and then be playing happily with friends the next. Shortly after this they may go back to crying. This is entirely normal and not a sign that they are unstable or not coping well. In fact, this is often a child’s best way of coping; when the grief becomes too much, their mind instinctively switches to a new, distracting thought to stop them from becoming overwhelmed.

Ways to help

Following the loss of a loved one, children need to be given the space to express their grief in a healthy way. Too often children are told things like, “be strong for Mummy” or “don’t let your dad see you cry.” Comments like this tell the child that they are not allowed to grieve. This can lead to them suppressing their feelings and not properly coming to terms with their loss for many years.

There are, however, some things you can do to help the child feel safe and able to express their feelings in a healthy way:

  • Be aware of your own behaviour. Children naturally mimic adult behaviour, seeing it as an example of how to act. If your way of coping with grief is to never talk about it and distract yourself with work, they may learn to copy this behaviour. Try to lead by example by showing them it’s okay to cry and talk about your feelings.
  • Let them know they don’t need to take on a parent’s role. Even when no expectations are placed on a child, they can feel as though they must take on the role of the person who has passed away, especially if it was a parent. This puts a huge burden on them. Reassure them directly that they do not need to do this.
  • Give them extra love and attention. When possible, giving the child lots of affection will reassure them that they are still loved and they are safe.
  • Tell them that you will love and look after them. One of a child’s biggest fears is not being looked after. Reassure them that you will be taking care of them and they will be safe with you.
  • Tell them the truth whenever you can. Uncertainty leads children to fill in the gaps in their imagination. They may believe these fantasies with a great amount of certainty and it can confuse and upset them.
  • Don’t be afraid to use the word ‘dead’. It might sound blunt, but using phrases like ‘passed away’, ‘gone to heaven’ or ‘gone to sleep’ can be very confusing for a child. They may take these phrases literally, which will stop them from fully understanding what has happened. When explaining death to a child, words like ‘dead’ and ‘died’ are often a better choice.
  • Make sure they know that it is okay to ask questions. Children can be very curious and you should try to answer any questions they have as honestly as possible. Be prepared to repeat explanations too – children may ask the same question several times to make sure that what they heard the first time is still true.
  • Give them choices. Children like being given choices. It makes them feel involved and valued. Something as simple as asking their opinion on a casket or funeral song, or letting them choose a personal item belonging to their loved one as a keepsake, can make all the difference.
  • Talk about the person who died. Do not be afraid to bring up the child’s loved one in conversation. This will let them know that, if they want to, they can also talk about them. It also reassures them that the person did exist and will continue to be remembered.
  • Talk to them about going back to school. Many children want to return to school quite soon after someone passes away. The routine and normality, along with the distraction of seeing their friends, can be a welcome relief from bereavement. Talk to the child about when they would like to go back to school and remember to keep teachers updated.
  • Go for a walk or play a game. Children can have trouble having ‘big’ conversations about feelings. Instead, take the dog for a walk with them, play a board game, or do some arts and crafts. They may find it easier to talk in these situations, when there is a physical activity to distract them should they become too upset.
  • Try to maintain a certain level of discipline. It is normal for children to act out when grieving, but try not to let them off the hook too much. Try to return to a normal level of discipline, whether that involves time-outs, grounding, or taking away toys and internet access. In a time when their world has been turned upside down, this will give them structure and a sense of normality.

Caring for a grieving child is always a challenge, especially if you are also grieving. It is normal to feel overwhelmed by dealing with childcare and your own bereavement. Seeking help from a specialist bereavement support organisation can help you continue to give the child the emotional and practical support system they need.