How children feel and react when a parent dies
When a parent dies, children can feel sad, angry, confused, bewildered or worried that they somehow caused the death. Some children feel anxious about the safety of their other parent or carer and might fear that this person will also die. They might worry about this for many years later.
Children might react to the death of a parent by:
- crying a lot or having tantrums
- withdrawing from others
- having physical pain like headaches and stomach aches
- showing signs of generalised anxiety
- asking a lot of questions
- talking to strangers about the death
- losing skills – for example, a preschooler might talk like a baby again
- having sleep problems including more nightmares
- acting as if the death didn’t happen or waiting for their parent to come back
- doing worse at school
- being anxious about separating from you.
And some children might seem not to react to their parent’s death at all. This is common too.
Feelings and reactions depend on how the death happened – for example, whether it was sudden or expected. They also depend on children’s age and development, their beliefs about death, their life experiences, and the support they get from family, friends, school and support services.
As children grow and develop, they’ll understand their loss in new ways. The way they feel and grieve will probably change too.
Violent or traumatic deaths – for example, a car accident or suicide – or witnessing the death can deeply affect children and families. If this happens in your family, seek professional help for your child and yourself. Start by talking to your GP.
Talking with children about the death of a parent
It’s important to tell your child as soon as possible that their parent has died. This way your child can hear about the death from you.
Talking with your child can help them understand, accept and cope with the death. It also sends the message that talking is good and all emotions are OK. This can give your child a sense of safety and security.
Here are some tips to help:
- Choose a safe, private, comfortable and familiar place to talk.
- If you’re too distressed to talk, ask a trusted family member or friend to support you or do some of the talking for you.
- Explain what has happened simply and in language your child can understand. This includes using the word ‘death’ or ‘died’. If you say that someone has ‘passed away’ or ‘went to sleep and didn’t wake up’, your child might be confused or frightened about going to sleep.
- Expect the same questions over and over as your child tries to understand what has happened.
- If you don’t know how to answer your child’s questions, tell your child you’ll find out and come back to them when you know more.
These conversations will probably take time, and your child will have more questions as they grow and develop. It’s likely to be a lifelong conversation.
Good mental health and wellbeing can help your child through this tough time. Positive relationships and a healthy lifestyle, including healthy eating and physical activity, are important to children’s mental health and wellbeing.
Supporting children after the death of a parent
- If your child wants to talk, stop what you’re doing and give them your full attention. And always give your child reassurance and comfort – for example, by hugging or sitting with them.
- Include your child in events to honour the parent who has died, but let your child decide how they want to be involved. For example, they could pick out photos to display at the funeral.
- Think of and suggest rituals that are meaningful to you and your child. For example, you could ask your child if they’d like to help you set up a special place with a photo where you and your child can talk to the parent who has died. Or you and your child could create a memory box with mementos of the parent.
- Help your child recognise, name and express their emotions. Reading books about grief, watching age-appropriate videos and playing can help. Your child could play with puppets or write, draw, sing or dance.
- Tell your child’s teacher and the parents of your child’s close friends about the death. If they know what’s happening, they can support your child too.
You might be focused on your child’s wellbeing, but you’re grieving too. It’s important to take time to cope with your own grief. If you look after yourself, you’ll be in better shape to support your child.
Changes to family life after the death of a parent: helping children cope
The death of a parent might lead to big changes in your family’s life, including:
- lower family income
- a move to a different house
- a move to a different school or preschool
- new caregivers
- more or less time with extended family and friends
- relationship changes among family members.
Routines are one of the best ways for you and your child to cope with the stress, uncertainty and confusion that these changes can bring. Routines keep everyday life familiar and predictable and can help your child feel safe and secure.
It’s a good idea to ask others to help you with these routines. For example, a trusted friend could pick up your child from school. Or family and friends could bring you meals.
Try to stick to familiar routines as much as you can. But it’s OK if you need to create new routines to adapt to your family’s changes after the death.
After a parent’s death, your family might be eligible for some financial support from Services Australia. Your family might also be entitled to the superannuation fund balance of the person who died, along with any additional death benefits. Contact the superannuation fund to check.
Professional support for children’s grief after the death of a parent
It’s a good idea to get professional support for your child after the death of a parent.
Your GP is a good place to start. They can guide you to the most appropriate services for your child – for example, bereavement counselling services. They can also refer your child to a mental health professional like a psychologist or social worker.
Here are more ways to get support for your child:
- Call Griefline on 1300 845 745.
- Encourage your child to speak to their school counsellor.
- If your child is 5 years or older, suggest they call Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800, or use Kids Helpline email counselling service or Kids Helpline webchat counselling service.
- Contact local mental health services.
- If the person died by suicide, call StandBy Support After Suicide on 1300 727 247 or go to StandBy Support After Suicide – Find support.
Children’s grief over time
Your child’s grief will probably change over time, as your child grows and develops.
As you and your child adjust to the death of their parent, you’ll probably find ways to remember the parent. For example, it might help to talk about the parent’s personality or life, share funny stories about them, or do activities that they enjoyed like playing their favourite sport or listening to music they liked. At first, this might feel difficult, but over time it might bring comfort to both of you.
Your child might feel upset at times like Mothers or Fathers Day, the parent’s birthday or death anniversary, special occasions or milestones, and holidays. Planning for these events with your child can give you both a sense of control and reduce your anxiety beforehand.
It’s a good idea leading up to and during these events to regularly talk with your child about how they’re feeling and give them extra comfort and reassurance.
You’ll both have good days and bad days. Try to show compassion for yourself and encourage self-compassion in your child while your family finds its own ways of coping with this very challenging experience.