Marilyn Relf, Ann Couldrick and Heather Barrie



What about children?
Children, like adults, have feelings which they need to express. Many of these will be similar to those described in this leaflet, but there are some differences, depending on the age of the child. No child is too young to notice that an important person is no longer around, and it is important to tell all children, in simple language, that the person has died and is not coming back. In particular, young children find it difficult to grasp the concepts of past and future and only see the present as being real. They may upset you by seeming callous but this is as a result of their need to concentrate on what is happening now. They also continue to need to explore the world and to enjoy it. This does not mean that they do not feel sadness at times. As parents or grandparents we often want to protect children from the pain of grief.
If we leave children on their own to make sense of what is happening they may feel bewildered, abandoned and alone.
The way children learn to respond to death and loss early in life affects their reactions to future losses. If we, as adults, take the time to share with children their feelings when a pet dies, or to discuss the deaths they experience through books and television, we are helping to prepare them to handle the death of a significant person when it does occur.


How do children show grief?
Children may react to death in a variety of ways. Some will exhibit many of the following reactions, some only a few. Some will react immediately, some may have very delayed reactions.

“My Mummy didn’t really die”.
When a child resumes play immediately or laughs inappropriately it does not mean there is no feeling, but that the loss is simply too difficult to bear or understand at the moment.

“How could they die and leave me all alone like this?”
“Why didn’t Mummy and Daddy take better care of my baby brother?”
“Why did God let my friend die?”

“If I hadn’t been such a bad little girl my Mummy wouldn’t have died.”
“I was mad at my brother. That’s why he died!”

“Who will take care of me now?”

Clinging or replacement
“Don’t leave me, Mummy!”
“Uncle Dave, do you love me as much as Daddy did?”

Bodily distress and anxiety
“I can’t sleep.”
“I feel sick just like my sister did before she died.”

“Granddad was perfect.”

Assume mannerisms or behaviours
“Don’t I sound just like my Daddy?”


How can I help my children?...
Be direct, simple and honest. Explain truthfully what happened.

Encourage the child to express feelings openly. Crying is normal and helpful.

Accept the emotions and reactions the child expresses. Don’t tell the child how he should or should not feel.

Offer warmth and your physical presence and affection.

Share some of your feelings with your child. Allow your child to comfort you too.

Be patient. Know that children need to hear “the story” and to ask the same questions again and again.

Reassure the child that death is not contagious, that the death of one person does not mean that the child or other loved ones will soon die.

Maintain order, stability and security in the child’s life.

Listen to what the child is telling or asking you. Then respond according to the child’s needs.

Allow the child to make some decisions about participation in the family rituals - i.e. the funeral, visiting the grave. However, be sure to explain in advance what will happen.

With your loving and patient support your children will be able to cope with their loss.


Common explanations that may confuse children
Some of the explanations we give children can actually make their grief more difficult or cause problems later in life.

Your mother went on a long journey
“Then why is everyone crying?” “Why didn’t she say goodbye?” “Daddy, please don’t go away.”

Your aunt was sick and had to go to hospital
“If I get sick will I go to the hospital and die, too?”
“I don’t want my sister to go the hospital for an operation.” “The doctor is bad - he made Aunt Sue die.”

It was God’s will. God was lonely and wanted your brother. He was so good that God wants him in heaven
“I’m lonely without my brother. I need him more than God does. God is mean!”
“If God wants the good people, I’m going to be as bad as I can. I don’t want to die.”

Your grandfather went to sleep
“I don’t want to go to bed.” “I’ll make myself stay awake all night so I won’t die too.”
Children’s reactions to bereavement are more fully explained in ‘Grief and Bereavement understanding children’ available from Sobell House Bereavement Service’

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