The death of someone you love is very painful. All kinds of difficult emotions occur and the pain and sadness may feel like it will never let up. It’s important to remember that there is no right or wrong way to grieve and there is no ‘timeline’ as to how long someone should grieve for. Grieving is a personal and individual experience.
Children and young people may respond to death in any of several ways including:
Shock and disbelief – It’s hard to accept what’s happened. Children may fantasise about the dead person, talk about them in the present tense or continue to ask for the person despite being told that they are never coming back.
Guilt – This may result in a need to find a reason for the death. Its common for children to feel guilty about something they said, did or didn’t say or do and believe that they could have prevented the death.
Anger – This may be directed at the parent, carer, teacher, siblings or even the person who has died! They may feel the need to blame someone for the injustice that has been done. Children often express their anger through challenging behaviour.
Fear – Children may fear that other people close to them may die or they may be scared that they will die too. They are likely to feel anxious and insecure about who will look after them.
Physical symptoms – Grief is often thought of as strictly an emotional process, but often it incorporates physical problems like, tiredness, feeling sick, sleeping problems, aches and pains such as stomach ache. If someone has died following an illness it’s possible that the child may complain of having the same symptoms shown by the dead person during their final stages.
Children of all ages experience grief, even before they aren’t old enough to know what it means. Children don’t always have the words to express their feelings and it can be difficult for adults to understand them.
Children are often only aware of one emotion at a time – as such, they pass in and out of grief. One minute they may be happy playing and then it comes back.
Even from birth, children feel emotions equally as strongly as adults. Babies express their feelings of distress, anxiety rage and delight via body language. It’s possible that their eating, sleeping and crying patterns may change. They may even look for the missing person and become anxious or withdrawn.
Young children may show their bereavement with temper tantrums. They may become clingy and more demanding, fearing abandonment or separation from those who care for them.
Depending on age, children may have little or no concept of time, they will struggle to understand that death is final. They may need repeated explanations or reassurance and they will take things at face value. Saying things such as ‘he’s gone away’ is confusing for them. Its best to say that the person has died and won’t be coming back.
Children at school age can usually understand that death is permanent but their language skills may be limited and they may express sadness, fear and anger through actions and play.
Strong emotions are hard for children and young people to handle. Some difficult behaviour, anxiety or sulkiness is to be expected. They may start acting as though they were younger and may return to bedwetting, thumb sucking and become scared of the dark.
Young people think and talk about the concept of death and experience emotions as adults do. Adolecency is a time of strong emotions when young people develop their own identity, and for many, may be in conflict with their families. They are more self-conscious, and may fear that they will be seen as children if they show their emotions or ask for help. It is important to remember that adolescents are not too old to need reassurance, comfort and affection.