Children and young people may react in a number of ways to the death of someone close to them. Although there are generally recognised and agreed upon emotional responses to death, it is important to note that progression between what is often described as the ‘stages of grief’ is not linear or (necessarily) based on time since death. Included below are some phases of grief that an individual may oscillate between during their grieving journey.
Children react in various ways to death, and the emotions they express can change incredibly fast. Shock is usually the first response and is a natural reaction which can manifest in varying forms, such as:
- Difficulty expressing and articulating thoughts
- Uncontrollable sobbing
- Hysterical laughter
- Engagement in displacement activities, such as organising toys and clearing up
Shock acts as a temporary buffer before reality sinks in.
- It visits, revisits and evolves over time and this can feel incredibly frightening and confusing
- Sometimes a child’s response seems “wrong”, but shock manifests in many varying forms
- Reassure the child that what they are experiencing is normal
In whatever guise it presents, be assured that shock is a necessary protective state that provides time to process bad news.
Grief can feel overwhelming. Denial provides the necessary time to process and adjust to what has happened, and takes varying forms:
- Places – some may not want to leave a certain place in case the dead person “returns”. They may visit somewhere associated with the person causing them to feel upset
- Obsessive behaviours – some may adopt obsessive behaviours as a coping mechanism. This may be to “impress” the deceased in the hope that they return or in case they are “looking on”
- Searching – some may actively search for the deceased, believing they are not really dead, or to postpone accepting that they are gone
Over time the reality of the death sets in.
- The time needed to reach these points differs for each individual
- Let them know that when they feel ready, you are available to talk openly
- Acknowledge their denial behaviours
- Respect that this is a protective mechanism that should disappear in time
As time passes, a child slowly adapts to their new circumstances and denial fades.
Anger is a common response to grief. Children often find it hard to express their feelings, which causes incredible frustration. They might be furious towards themselves or others. It is common to be angry with the person who died, perhaps for:
- Denying them the chance to say goodbye
- Making them feel abandoned and alone
- Causing them to experience new and complex emotions
Anger can manifest in various ways, according to the person’s age, understanding, and the circumstances of the death. Younger children might have tantrums and be aggressive. They might get into fights with other children and display disruptive behaviour.
Bereaved teenagers might turn to alcohol, drugs or crime.
Anger is often directed towards those to whom they feel closest.
- Try not to take it personally and remain understanding
- Reassure them that it is usual to feel angry
- Explain that hurting themselves or others is not the answer
- Encourage them to channel their anger in a safe way, such as playing sport or punching a pillow
Guilt is often anger directed inwards and children are particularly vulnerable to feeling guilty for a death. Children may:
- Start bargaining; by giving up a certain behaviour, or by making a promise to act a certain way, in exchange for the dead person’s return
- Have heightened feelings of guilt if they harboured resentment towards the deceased person whilst they were alive
- Become convinced the death was their fault due to something they did or said, or something they did not do or say
Reassure them that they are not guilty for the death and that nothing they could have done have prevented it. Many perceive a death as their responsibility and burden themselves with blame. Unburden them by listening to their rationale and answering their questions in an age appropriate way.
Guilt may arise as a result of experiencing a period of relief whilst grieving. Therefore, it is important to reassure the child that it is not disrespectful of the person who died to:
- Be happy
- Explore new interests
- Not think about the person who died all the time
Bereaved children will probably experience depressive episodes as they reach an understanding that the person who died is not coming back.
Depression can manifest itself in different ways:
- On a physical level it can result in lethargy or a reduced appetite
- There may be a withdrawal from interests or hobbies they previously found enjoyable
- It can affect a child’s state of mind, leading to forgetfulness and confusion
- Anxiety over forgetting the deceased person – what they looked like or how they sounded
It is important to:
- Allow them time and space to express how they feel
- Reassure them so they can feel valued
- Encourage them to participate in activities they are known to like
- Encourage them to engage with their friends if they feel ready to do so
If you become concerned about your child’s welfare and emotional wellbeing following the death of someone close, seek the support of your GP. You can get in touch with us here at Grief Talk and other mental health services.
How can I help?
- Help the bereaved child to understand that it is OK to NOT be overwhelmed or preoccupied with thoughts of death. Playing, laughing and smiling is natural and suggests the child is adjusting to life. It is in no way disrespectful to the person who has died
- Similarly reassure the bereaved child that not thinking about the person who has died all the time is OK and normal
- Help your child to realise that although their lives will be different in many ways, this doesn’t mean they won’t have a happy life or exciting future ahead of them
- Participate in activities designed to solidify memories of the deceased – especially if the child asks questions about the person and wants to be helped to build a sense of who they were
The Grief Encounter helpline, grieftalk can be contacted from 9am – 9pm Monday to Friday. The grieftalk helpline number is 0808 802 0111, or you can chat online or even email us now, we are here to listen.