Children have the same need to grieve as adults do when a grandparent, parent, sibling, or other relative or friend passes away unexpectedly. But often children are kept in the dark about death and don’t know whether their feelings and grief is normal, and they can feel isolated and alone in their sadness.
When adults close to them are able to talk openly with them about the death, it shows children that grief is a natural response when someone you love is gone. Rather than trying to protect them from learning about a death, we need to show children and even teens that it’s all right to feel hurt and to cry, and that this pain won’t last forever.
How do I talk with a child about death?
Experts advise that it is best to think about what death and grieving means before you have to talk about it with children, since they can be easily confused and take what you say literally. The simplest guides suggest that you should:
- Ask whether they understand what has happened.
- Answer their questions directly, in simple enough language for them.
- Say it straight, not using any metaphors or “white lies”. Don’t say anything you might have to take back later.
- Talk about any faith beliefs you have or the person had about what happens when we die in simple terms.
- Don’t rush them. Be patient even if they ask the same question multiple times.
Don’t worry about having all the answers. The main thing is to respond to questions in a way that shows you care, even asking more questions to explore what your child is thinking and feeling.
How you talk with a grieving child will of course depend on their age. Young children need the freedom to ask lots of questions about why the person is gone and where they went, without being shut down or ignored. Teenagers need the freedom to express a wide range of emotions such as anger, loneliness, or self-blame, without being told to “be strong” for the rest of their family.
It can be difficult to answer questions from your children if you’re not ready to deal with the loss yourself. In this case, it is vital that you ask someone to help you talk with your child about the loss, such as another adult relative or a professional counsellor.
There are even some great children’s picture books that you can read together with your child to help you talk about death and grieving together. Or you could read a book like Healing A Child’s Grieving Heart: 100 Practical Ideas (Center for Loss), which lists activities you can do with your child during the grieving process to comfort them or to help them process their own mourning.
What does a child’s grief look like?
A child’s grief often looks very similar to an adult’s grief:
- Shock or feeling like it’s not real
- Loneliness and longing for the person to return
- Anger that death took the person away
- Thinking they caused the person’s death, or feeling guilty over something they said or did towards the person
- Anxiety about the person being gone, fear of being abandoned, fear of dying
- Thinking constantly about the person
- Difficulty sleeping
- Loss of appetite
- Difficult concentrating on schoolwork or homework
- Withdrawal from friends
Young children often repeat the same questions about the death over and over again. Make sure you respond to their questions each time, rather than ignoring them or telling them to stop asking. Repeating questions and getting answers is how children adjust to losing a loved one.
Question 1: What happened?
This is a question that may be asked many times. A child may go into shock when they are first told that a loved one has died, and it may not seem real or sink in, just like for adults in shock.
Use direct language to answer that the person has died, and therefore won’t be around any longer. Mention any funeral or memorial services that will be organised, so the child knows what is coming.
It is also important to recognise other normal reactions your child or teen may have to the shock of being told of a death, such as:
- Being stunned, difficult to move physically
- Feeling confused
- Being agitated or angry
- Physical symptoms of anxiety such as sweating, increased heart rate, nausea, headache
Some children will not seem moved by the death of a loved one immediately. Grief takes time and they may only start to feel any emotions about the death later, as they start to realise how different life will be without that person around. As the Tasmanian Department of Health puts it, there are no rules or timetable for grieving.
Question 2: When are they coming home? Why did they leave?
It is vitally important that young children are told that although their loved one isn’t coming home, this is not because they don’t love the child or the family anymore. You can reassure your child that they haven’t done anything wrong, and they are not the reason the person died.
Question 3: Why are they sleeping?
If your children are present when you attend the funeral home for a viewing of the body in the casket, they will need to know what to expect.
Children often want to touch things to understand that they are real. Explain that the body will be cold and pale, and won’t move if they touch it or talk to it, but that it’s okay for them to touch and talk to the deceased person to say goodbye.
Children may not understand the purpose of solemn ceremonies such as funerals if they are not feeling sad at the time. Being involved in planning the ceremony can help children to understand that the purpose of the ceremony is to remember the person who has died and to comfort each other. Allow them to come to the ceremony, but don’t force them.
Afterwards, very young children often “debrief” these new experiences by acting them out with toys or other children. For example, they might play by re-enacting the funeral march by the pall-bearers. This is okay and not unhealthy.
Question 4: Why did they die?
This question may be the hardest one to answer because children ask this question for many different reasons.
Children often have a subconscious belief that they and others can avoid death somehow. So if someone dies, the child can be confused about why they “let” it happen.
Teenagers and older children are more likely to feel that the person’s death is unfair rather than confusing, since the death is often no one’s fault.
Going back to school
When it’s time for your child or teenager to return to school, make sure that their school teachers and principal know about the death. Teachers can look out for them and give extensions on assignments, and the principal can cut them some slack if they get in any trouble. Let your child know first that you’ll be speaking with their teachers, so they’re not taken off guard or feeling like you went behind their back.
A grieving child may express fear, clinginess, temper tantrums, stubbornness, or other unruly behaviour when they find out they have to go back to school. This is normal, and you can reassure them by talking about it beforehand. This means they can plan what they will say to their friends about the death, and getting back into the school routine will help them while they are grieving.
We should not assume that a child’s friends will be good at comforting them if they become sad or upset at school. Unless the friend has experienced grief themselves, they often feel helpless or confused, so they may ignore the child’s grief or loss. Talking with the parents of your child’s friends before they go back to school can really help your child’s friends to understand and be supportive.
Where to get help and counselling
Nobody can deal with their own grief and the grief of a child without any help, and we shouldn’t try to go it alone. Your local GP can give you or your child a referral for free counselling through Medicare, and there are psychologists who specialise in grief and loss in children.
Australia has several organisations dedicated to helping you and your kids get help and treatment when needed, and information about self-help strategies you and your kids can try:
- Australian Psychological Society: Find a psychologist in your area or phone the Referral Service on 1800 333 497.
- Kids Helpline: Phone 1800 55 1800 if your child would like to talk with someone.
- Lifeline: Phone 24/7 helpline on 13 11 14 or chat online if you want to talk with someone.
- RedKite: Phone 1800 REDKITE (1800 733 548) for grief counselling on weekdays, 9am-7pm.
- Rainbows for Kids and Teens: Provides programs to help grieving children in each state and territory in Australia, with 12 weekly sessions of games and discussions, led by registered volunteer trainers.
- Kids Grieve Too (KG2) Support Groups: Contact the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement on (03) 9265 2100 or contact via email.
- headspace National Youth Mental Health Foundation: There are headspace centres all over Australia for you to talk in person – or you can chat online or phone 1800 650 890.
- Trauma and Grief Network:
- ReachOut Australia: Download their Toolbox of mental health self-help apps.
- Beyond Blue: Phone 1300 22 4636.
- SANE Australia: Phone 1800 18 7263 to chat with a mental health professional on weekdays, 9am-5pm.
- National Centre for PTSD: For more information and help finding mental health professionals who specialise in post-traumatic stress disorder.