When someone close to your child dies, your child might have strong feelings – sadness, despair, anger, confusion and anxiety. These feelings are normal. You can help your child by providing a safe and supportive environment as your child learns to deal with the feelings.
What children might feel after a death
There’s a big range of normal when it comes to children’s feelings after a death.
Many children do show sadness, anger and anxiety. Some might be confused and struggle to understand what has happened. Some might not seem affected by the death at all. Or they might feel guilty that something they said or did caused the death.
Your child might also show signs of separation anxiety and be scared that you or another caregiver might also die.
It can help to know that your child will react more strongly to the death of someone who he saw regularly and liked – for example, a friendly neighbour– than to the death of a family member he rarely visited. Young children can also react in the same ways to the death of a loved pet and the death of a person.
Talking about feelings
Children – especially younger children – can have ‘big’ feelings when someone dies, but they don’t always have the words to express their feelings. This can be confusing and frustrating for them. So it’s often a good idea to start by helping your child identify how she’s feeling.
Then you can let her know that her feelings are normal. You might tell your child that you feel something similar. For example, ‘Meg, you seem really angry that Nanna died. I’m feeling angry too because I really loved her, and I don’t like it that she can’t be here with us anymore’.
If your child knows that it’s OK to talk about how she’s feeling – and that you can cope with her feelings – she’ll be more likely to talk more. And if she can talk more, she’ll be better able to seek help when she feels overwhelmed. For some children, using toys, books, music or drawing might help them to express or show their feelings.
Sometimes it can help to give your child ideas of how to cope when he’s having strong feelings. For example, ‘Dimitri, when you’re feeling really sad and missing Grandpa, maybe you could come and give me a cuddle. Then we could do something that makes us feel a bit happier’.
Over time, and with help from their parents and caregivers, most young children learn to cope with strong feelings. As your child finds these feelings easier to manage, you’ll probably find things easier too. If you’re concerned about how your child is coping after someone dies, talk with your child’s GP, your child and family health nurse or the wellbeing coordinator at your child’s school.
Tips to help your child cope
Children’s understanding of death depends on their age and development.
Toddlers and preschoolers
Children in this age group understand death as a move to another place, but they don’t understand that the person is gone forever.
Your child might ask if she can visit the person who died and when the person is coming back. She might ask the same questions over and over. This is her way of trying to understand what has happened.
Some of your child’s old habits might return – for example, he might wet the bed or start waking at night.
You can help your toddler or preschooler by:
- trying to keep to a routine
- answering questions openly and honestly – for example, ‘Aunty Nala died. She isn’t coming back so we won’t see her again’
- supporting, reassuring and comforting your child– for example, by giving your child a cuddle when she’s sad
- being patient with repeated questions
- letting her know that it’s OK to play, be happy and have fun
- gently reminding your child that she won’t be seeing her loved one anymore, if you think your child believes the loved one is coming back
- telling your child’s teachers or caregivers what has happened so that they can provide support.
At this age, children understand that death is the end of life, but they might believe that death can be prevented or that not everyone will die.
You can help your school-age child by:
- letting him know that the death wasn’t his fault and he won’t ‘catch it’
- trying to keep to a routine
- letting him know that it’s OK to play, be happy and have fun
- answering his questions openly and honestly – for example, if your child asks whether you’ll die, you could say, ‘Yes, I’ll die one day. Everyone dies’
- suggesting he do a memorial activity –for example, planting a tree, writing a letter or drawing a picture
- telling his teachers or caregivers what has happened so that they can provide support
- telling the parents of your child’s close friends so that they know he’s going through these feelings.