How pre-teens and teenagers might feel and react when a parent or sibling dies
When a parent or sibling dies, pre-teens and teenagers might feel shocked, confused, sad, angry, worried, isolated or lonely. Some might feel anxious about losing other family members. And some might worry about how the death might change their everyday life.
And some pre-teens and teenagers might seem not to react to the death at all. This is common and can happen when teenagers don’t know how they feel about the death.
Feelings and reactions often depend on how the death happened – for example, whether it was sudden or expected. After a sudden death, teenagers might seem to be shocked rather than sad, because there was no time to prepare or say goodbye.
Violent or traumatic deaths – for example, a car accident or suicide – can deeply affect children and families. So can witnessing a death. If this happens in your family, seek professional help for your child and yourself. Start by talking to your GP or calling Griefline on 1300 845 745.
When and how to tell pre-teens and teenagers about the death
It’s important to tell your child as soon as possible that their parent or sibling has died. This way your child will hear about the death from you.
It’s also important to explain the death simply and truthfully. For example:
- ‘Mum was in an accident at work. The doctors and nurses tried their best, but her body was too injured and she died.’
- ‘You know that Dad has been sick for a while. This morning his body couldn’t keep going and he died.’
- ‘They didn’t get better with the medicine that we tried. Their body wasn’t able to keep going, and they died today.’
- ‘Your sister got really sick, and she died.’
- ‘Your brother died by suicide today. He felt like it was the only option to ease his pain.’
If you have more than one child to talk to, it’s a good idea to tell them together. This way they get the information from you at the same time. Afterwards, you can talk to each child separately and give each the support they need.
Talking with pre-teens and teenagers about the death in the early weeks
Talking with your child can help them accept and cope with the death. It gives your child a sense of security and shows that you’re there to support them as best you can. And it sends the message that talking about emotions is good and that all emotions are OK.
These tips might help when you talk with your child about the death:
- Try to talk in a safe, private, comfortable and familiar place.
- Comfort your child and reassure them that what they’re feeling is OK. For example, ‘It’s OK if you aren’t sure how you feel right now’.
- Let your child know that you’ll be there to talk whenever they’re ready. For example, ‘It’s OK if you don’t want to talk about Mum’s death just now. I’ll be here’.
- If your child has questions that you can’t answer, tell your child you’ll find out more and come back to them.
- Be prepared for your child to respond in ways you might not expect. Try not to be judgmental about their responses.
Remember that you’re grieving too, so you also might find it difficult to talk about the death. If you’re too distressed to talk with your child, it’s OK to ask a trusted family member or friend to be with you or do some of the talking for you.
After the death of a parent or sibling, teenagers will need support for a long time, and their support needs will change over time. You can read more about ongoing support for pre-teens and teenagers after a parent or sibling has died.
Telling other people about the death of a parent or sibling
If you tell people about the death, they can support your child too. But it’s important to ask your child about who they’d like to tell. This might include:
- close friends and extended family
- the parents of your child’s close friends
- school staff like your child’s classroom teacher, principal or wellbeing coordinator
- people from your child’s extracurricular activities like your child’s sports coach or tutors
- your child’s employer, if they have one.
It’s also a good idea to ask your child about when and how they’d like to tell people. For example, your child might want you to tell people for them. Or your child might want to tell their friends and have you tell their friends’ parents. Or you might agree to tell your child’s sports coach and ask the coach only to talk about it with your child if your child brings it up first.
Deciding whether to go to a parent’s or sibling’s funeral
Going to the funeral can help your child grieve, accept the death and say goodbye to their parent or sibling. Being part of the ceremony might also help your child feel important and give them the sense their personal loss is acknowledged. And your child might take comfort from seeing the community come together to support their family and from hearing other people’s memories of their parent or sibling.
But going to the funeral or being involved in it is up to you and your child. It depends on what your child is comfortable with, so it’s important to talk with them about this decision if you can.
It’s OK if your child doesn’t want to go to the funeral. But it’s a good idea to talk with them about their reasons. You might be able to help them feel more comfortable about going.
You could also suggest options like attending only one part of the funeral or saying goodbye in another way. For example, you could have a private viewing at the funeral home, or your child could leave a special item in the casket, like a letter or drawing.
If your child decides not to go to the funeral or to only one part of it, it’s important to plan where they’ll be, who they’ll be with and what they’ll do instead. This way, you can be sure your child is safe and cared for while you’re at the funeral.
It’s also a good idea to be flexible, and let your child know that they can change their mind about going or not going at any time.
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. You can get support by seeing your GP or calling Griefline on 1300 845 745.
Getting through a parent’s or sibling’s funeral
If your child will be involved in the funeral, they’ll need your support.
Beforehand, it’s a good idea to tell your child what to expect at the funeral. You could take them through the plan or you could involve them in planning it. And you can give your child a sense of control by asking them how they want to be involved. For example, they could prepare a eulogy either on their own or with others, choose music to play, or make a slideshow to display.
During the funeral, you could ask a trusted adult to sit with and support your child. They can stay with your child to comfort them and answer questions, and go with your child if they need a break.
You could also let your child know that they don’t need to talk to people at the funeral if they don’t want to. And give them the option of taking a break or leaving at any time with someone you trust.
After a parent’s or sibling’s death, your family might be eligible for financial support from Services Australia. And if a parent died, your family might also be entitled to their superannuation fund balance, along with any additional death benefits. Contact the superannuation fund to check.
Professional support for pre-teen and teenage grief
It’s a good idea to get professional support for your child after the death of a parent, especially if you’re concerned about your child’s behaviour or wellbeing.
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.
- Suggest your child call Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800, or use the Kids Helpline email counselling service or Kids Helpline webchat counselling service.
- Contact mental health services for teenagers.
- If the person died by suicide, call StandBy Support After Suicide on 1300 727 247 or go to StandBy Support After Suicide – Find support.