Grieving children – what to expect
There’s not much different between children's and adult grief; outwardly maybe, but not inwardly. ~ Di McKissock 2013
Children's reactions to death will vary greatly depending on their age and stage of development, their relationship with their brother, sister, relative or friend, and whether they have had any previous experience of death.
The main support for a grieving child will come from within their own family and community.
Children experience many of the same feelings adults do, though the ways they react to and express these feelings are often different. Children do not have the words to express their strong feelings and may feel confused by the strength of their response to the death of their loved one. Children may act out their grief; become clingy, regress to certain comforting behaviours, throw tantrums, cry or have nightmares.
It is through play that children process new information and experiences, express their feelings and act out their fantasies. Play helps children learn how to navigate the world around them. It is natural, therefore, for death to become a common theme within the play of a grieving child. A young child may draw pictures of the person who died, re‐create a funeral scene with dolls or help a sad stuffed animal find its mummy.
Children tend to grieve in spurts, avoiding intense emotions for long periods of time. When children receive the news that a loved one has died, they may respond with a burst of emotion and then ask to play outside. By allowing themselves brief amounts of time to grieve, the painful feelings children experience when someone dies become more manageable. This does not mean, however, that children "get over" their grief quickly. Instead, they tend to experience these painful feelings over and over again.
As children grow, they begin to understand more about death, eventually reaching the conclusion that death is forever and that their loved one will never come back. As they gradually reach this understanding, children will re‐grieve the loss of their loved one. They will grieve for what could have been, and may need additional support during important holidays and developmental milestones.7
Siblings have unique relationships and need their own time to grieve. They may even need their own special person to debrief with, as they often feel they don't want to further worry their parents.
Some things to keep in mind include:
- The death of a sibling can create a specific kind of aloneness.
- Siblings will often postpone their grief whilst they care for other family members.
- Siblings can also say things they don't mean – with their sadness occurring at a later time, often triggered by another event.
- The death of a sibling will change the position of children in the family.
- The grief for a sibling may re-occur as they face new life experiences, for example graduation, marriage, birth of children.
- Siblings experience the same range of emotions and feelings as adults but will often express them in different ways, perhaps through behaviour and play.8
7 Adapted from: Grief Through a Child’s Eyes, Walko-Henry, K. The Center for Grief & Healing,
8 Adapted from: Journeys: Palliative care for children and teenagers, version 2, Eds. Fleming, S.
Coombs, S. and Phillips, M., Palliative Care Australia, 2010