How to Help a Child Deal With Death and Grief

Posted: 04/01/2018

We all know about death and we are aware of the effect it can have on a person. Grief is hard enough to deal with as an adult, even with years of experience and knowledge behind us. When a death occurs and a child is affected by it, it can be a major task to just understand how to help them process their grief and come to a point of acceptance surrounding the death.

The thing is, losing someone you love can affect everyone completely differently. Some people use humour to cope, some shut themselves away from the world, some use anger to express themselves, and others are able to talk things through with their friends and family. Whilst there is no “right” way to death with grief, for a child it can be extremely confusing and they may need some serious guidance through such a time.

If you need some further information, check out Child Bereavement UK.

Telling a child about someone’s death

explaining-death

If you find yourself responsible for telling a child about the death of someone close to them, we have some tips that can help you.

The way that such terrible news is delivered will most likely stay with the child as a standout memory in their childhood. Therefore, it is always best to talk face-to-face and in a quiet, but a familiar environment, if possible. If it is not possible as you or they are overseas, for example, please be sensitive to the impact the news will have to the person on the other end of the phone.

When sitting down to have the talk with a child, it is best to steer clear of distractions and make sure you give plenty of time, do not rush it. Rushing the news can be a natural reaction to nerves, but with a child, this can be damaging – they need more time to process and understand the concept of death. Furthermore, switch off your devices, and make sure the TV, any music or the radio are not playing in the background. As well as this being distracting, a child may associate a certain song or TV show with the moment they received bad news about their loved ones death for the rest of their life. Preferably, this association should be avoided.

Do not give too much information too quickly. In most cases, people in general who hear bad news will only take in a fraction of what is being said. After telling them, check to see when they are ready to hear more. Make sure the child understands what has happened before going into any details (only what is appropriate) and encourage them to express themselves if they can, this will set them in better stead for expressing themselves in the future rather than bottling up emotion.

With children and young people, you should be ready to answer questions truthfully. Avoid phrases such as “gone to sleep” or “with God” – whilst you are trying to be PG and trying to be nice, this is not necessarily clear. We strongly advise that you do not promise things that you cannot deliver because you are wanting to provide comfort in any way you can, this will only damage someone’s trust.

Physical Affection

It may seem natural to want to comfort a child by hugging them or holding them. However, it is important that you do not smother a child. The child may actually need physical space in order to take in what has just happened to them. Leave it up to the child if they want to be touched or physically comforted.

A child with learning difficulties

For your sake, you may want to consider rehearsing what it is you are going to say and how you are going to say it. If you are dealing with a child who has learning difficulties, this step is especially important. In this case, you need to get what you say perfect in terms of clarity and tone. A child with learning difficulties may struggle a lot more to understand the concept of death than a child without learning difficulties, as well as the impact it will have on them and the people around them.

A child with a language barrier

If a child does not share the same first language as you, you may want to take some time to figure out how to tell a child about a death in simpler language. Use plain, simple language and avoid bringing in other topics in order to avoid confusion. It is best to break the news simply, and say other things later once you are sure the child has understood you and has been given time to process.

How grief may affect a child

sad-child

Grief is a process which requires time. It is often the case that children will appear to be fine initially, and their behaviour may actually improve after the death because they are aware of a change.

Aged 0-2 years old

  • At this age, a child will have no concept of death.

  • A child at this age should notice the absence of a parent within 4-7 months.

  • Will often regress in maturity

  • May experience feeding or sleeping difficulties

Aged 2-5 years

  • Likely to see death as reversible

  • May feel as though they had some part to play in the death

  • May create fantasies to fill in the gaps in their knowledge

  • Will fear abandonment and separation

  • Sleeping problems

  • Angry about changes to their daily routine

  • Regressive behaviour e.g sucking their thumb or wetting the bed

Aged 5-11 years

  • Will start to understand the finality of death around the age of 8.

  • Aims to be the perfect child will become angry when they mess up. Wants to be in control of things and their emotions crumbles when this is not possible.

  • Regressive behaviour

  • Difficulty focussing on school and may feel different to their peers, struggling to express themselves verbally.

See also our guide on how to discuss death with children.