The death of a loved one is a difficult and painful time for everyone. Supporting a young person through bereavement can be exhausting and confusing, and often parents and carers are coping with their own grief.
Grieving is a very individual process and there is no right or wrong way to experience it, everybody reacts to grief differently. For a young person, their reaction may be influenced by many different factors, for example, their age, their temperament, their coping skills and their relationship to the person who has died.
Children under 2 years
Children of this age will have no concept of death, but they will sense that something is different and if they had formed an attachment to the person, they will feel the separation from them. Young children may behave differently, appearing more withdrawn, becoming clingy and crying.
Children aged 2 to 5 years
Children in this age group often believe that death is not permanent and that their loved one can come back. They may believe that something they said, did, thought or didn’t do was responsible for the death and they may blame themselves. Lots of reassurances that it isn’t their fault, as well as age-appropriate explanations about death, are important.
Some young people may regress in their behaviour and begin bedwetting after a period of being dry, start sucking their thumb, needing comforters, teddies or blankets, etc.
Primary school children
At this age children are still learning about death and may feel confused about it. They may still feel that death is temporary and that their loved one will return. They may worry that their loved one can still ‘feel’ things like cold or hunger and worry about where they are.
They may ask very concrete questions about the body, such as what it looks like and what has happened to them. It’s important to answer questions honestly and in words that they can understand. Children in this age group may experience nightmares and frightening thoughts about ghosts.
Secondary school children
By adolescence, death is understood and accepted as a part of life; their reactions may fluctuate between earlier age group reactions and reactions that are more adult.
Teenagers will often want to spend more time with friends than with family as they seek support. They may find emotions overwhelming or scary and not be able to find the words or ways to talk about them with others. They may want to feel like they’re coping and be seen to be coping, but inside they are hurting a great deal and may be putting their emotions on a shelf for a later time.
The impact of the death of a loved one or someone close can affect the way a teenager behaves and some may react with increased risk-taking behaviours. They may use drink and/or drugs to block out reality and as a comforter.
The effects of grief on young people
Grief affects everyone differently but many young people find that they experience a mixture of:
- Shock and disbelief, even if the death was expected
- Numbness; sometimes they may not feel anything at all initially
- Despair, depression and intense sadness
- Guilt; this is a very common feeling after a bereavement. They may tell themselves that they could have done more, should have done something differently, they often have lots of thoughts that begin with ‘if only…’ when in fact there was nothing that could have been done to prevent the loss
- Fear, anxiety and worry about how life will be now, what the future will look like and often fears about other people’s health and wellbeing
- Anger is a common reaction after losing someone close; anger at the person for leaving, anger at the unfairness of the loved one being take away, anger at other people for still being alive when the loved one isn’t
You might find that the young person:
- Finds it difficult to get out of bed
- Has no motivation to go to school
- May want to be alone and not mix with friends
- Has difficulty concentrating on anything
- Has difficulty getting to sleep or difficulty staying awake
- Feels anxious and worried
- Finds it difficult to accept that the person has died
- Is preoccupied with thoughts of the loved one
- Think that they see the person who has died
Their reactions to the loss of a loved one, particularly in the first days and weeks following the loss, are likely to be overwhelming and intense, but usually over time these feelings become less intense and less overwhelming, allowing them to begin thinking about their own lives again.
Sometimes, as they start to gradually recover from their grief, they can begin to feel guilty about feeling better, it can make them feel that they are forgetting about their loved one or that they shouldn’t be happy or moving on. These are common feelings in the process of bereavement and it’s important that we reassure them that these are normal feelings that do not mean they have forgotten about their loved one.
How can I help?
- Talk to your child honestly about the death. Use language they will understand. Children may get confused with ambiguous statements that are used to describe death like ‘they have gone to sleep’ or ‘they are in another place’. Keeping language simple and direct helps to reduce confusion
- Give lots of reassurance, support and information when they ask for it
- Talk about the person who has died; encourage them to share their memories of their loved one.
- Make memory boxes or books together
- Reassure them that it’s not their fault
- Show them it’s ok to be upset and they don’t have to hide their feelings
- Let them know it’s ok to laugh and have fun; often children feel guilty if they find something funny or are enjoying themselves. Reassure them that it’s ok and it doesn’t mean they have forgotten their loved one
- Watch out for signs of depression and seek support from a GP if you’re concerned
- Take care of yourself; it can be hard to help your child if you are grieving too. Make sure you have lots of support around you, such as family and friends. Support can also be sought from bereavement services
- Let your child’s school know about the loss and discuss how to support the young person on their return
As grieving is such a unique and individual experience, it’s not possible to say when it should ‘end’. Most children and families will be able to cope with the loss of a loved one with support and compassion from family and friends. The distress that a young person may feel following a loss can increase the worry of their parents’ and may lead them to consider professional help immediately following the death.
As grief is a normal reaction to a loss, most of the young person’s feelings and behaviours will gradually disappear over time. However if they persist, seem to be getting worse, or interfere with a young person’s day-to-day life, then they may require extra support to help them to move on.
Discussion with a GP, a school counsellor or local bereavement counselling service can all be helpful to ensure that the right support is in place to help you and your child through this difficult time.
Real Life Experience
If you would like to share your experiences of supporting a child through bereavement and loss, please email [email protected]