What children feel when someone dies and why
After a death, many children feel sad, angry or anxious. Some might be confused and struggle to understand what has happened. Or they might feel guilty that something they said or did caused the death. Some might show signs of separation anxiety and be scared that you or another carer might also die. Other children might just seem quiet and withdrawn.
Some children might not seem affected by the death at all. This is normal too.
Children often have stronger feelings about the death of someone they saw regularly and liked – for example, a friendly neighbour – than about the death of a family member they rarely visited. Young children can feel the same way about the death of a loved pet and the death of a person.
Children’s feelings about death depend on their age and development, as well as other things like their spiritual beliefs and life experiences.
How to help children with grief and loss when someone dies
Children – especially younger children – can have strong emotions when someone dies, but they don’t always have the words to express these feelings. This can be confusing and frustrating for them.
It’s often good to start by helping your child to understand how they’re feeling. You can do this by tuning into your child’s emotions and helping your child to name the emotions. For example, ‘It looks like you’re feeling worried about Grandma and whether she might die too. Is that right?’
Then you can let your child know that their emotions are natural. You might tell your child that you feel something similar. For example, ‘You seem angry that Nanna died. I’m feeling angry too because I 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 they’re feeling – and that you can cope with their emotions – your child will be better able to seek help when they feel overwhelmed. You could say, ‘Even though I’m sad I can still look after you’.
Sometimes children find it easier to talk to someone else. In these cases, a trusted family member or friend might be able to help.
Children might not always feel like talking about their feelings when someone dies. If this happens, you might be able to help your child express their feelings through play. For example, drawing, music, messy play activities and puppet play can help children express strong feelings like sadness.
And sometimes it can help to give your child ideas of how to cope when they’re having strong emotions. For example, ‘When you’re feeling sad and missing Grandpa, you could come and give me a cuddle. Then we could do something that makes us feel happier’. If you’re grieving too, you can let your child know how you’re coping. For example, ‘I’m feeling sad because I miss Grandpa, so I’m going to sit quietly and listen to music’.
Strong emotions can be overwhelming, and children might sometimes express them through challenging behaviour. If this sounds like your child, try to tune into your child’s feelings and encourage positive behaviour. If you focus on the challenging behaviour, your child might feel they need to hide their emotions.
Tips for children of all ages who are experiencing grief and loss
When someone dies, you can help children of all ages by:
- trying to keep to a routine
- letting children know that it’s OK to play, be happy and have fun
- telling teachers or carers what has happened so that they can support children
- talking about death with children in a way that reflects your family’s personal or spiritual beliefs or your child’s experiences – for example, ‘Yes, Poppy died, like when Leo’s grandpa died last term’.
Reading books about death, grief and loss with children can help them understand what has happened and how they’re feeling. For toddlers and preschoolers, you could try Beginnings and endings with lifetimes in between by Bryan Mellonie. For children aged 5-8 years, you could try the workbook When someone very special dies by Marge Heegaard.
Helping children aged 2-5 years when someone dies
Children in this age group generally understand death as a move to another place, but they don’t understand that the person has gone forever.
Your child might ask whether they can visit the person who died and when the person is coming back. Your child might ask the same questions over and over. This is your child’s way of trying to understand what has happened.
Some of your child’s old habits might return. For example, they might wet the bed, start waking at night or want to sleep in your bed.
You can help your toddler or preschooler by:
- answering questions openly and honestly – for example, ‘Aunty Nala died. Her body has stopped working. We won’t be able to visit her anymore’
- supporting, reassuring and comforting your child – for example, by giving your child a cuddle when they’re sad
- being patient with repeated questions
- gently reminding your child that they won’t be seeing their loved one again, if you think your child believes the loved one is coming back.
Helping children aged 5-8 years when someone dies
At this age, children usually understand that death is the end of life. They also understand many of the events that cause death, but they might think that you can prevent death or that not everyone will die. They might also think that they caused the death or that if they wish hard enough the person might come back.
You can help your child by:
- letting your child know that the death wasn’t their fault and they won’t ‘catch it’
- answering your child’s 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, but it mostly happens when people are old or very sick’
- suggesting they do a memorial activity – for example, planting a tree, writing a letter or drawing a picture
- telling your child’s teacher and the parents of your child’s close friends so that they know what’s happening.
Coping with your own grief when someone dies
You might be focused on your child’s wellbeing, but you’re probably grieving too. It’s important to take time to cope with your own grief. If you look after yourself, you’ll be better able to support your child.
Over time and with help from their parents or carers, most children learn to cope with strong feelings about death. 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 counsellor at your child’s school.