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Helping Children With Grief

(Adapted from “Grief in Children: Someone to talk to”. Barnardos p. 64 – 65.)
It is acknowledged that while there are distinct stages/phases in the grieving process different people may go through these stages in different sequences and at different paces. Generally the grieving process in adults is thought to take about two years while with children and adolescents it may be over a more extended time-frame with different issues arising as they go through
developmental milestones.

Denial, numbness, shock (up to 6 weeks)
• Death of the person may be denied
• Emerging feelings may be suppressed
• Refusal to talk about the death
• Bereaved keeps very busy to avoid thinking about the death
• Bereaved may show signs of confusion and forget everyday routines
• Children in shock may display either silent withdrawal or outbursts of crying/screaming.

Acute grief/searching and longing for deceased (6 weeks to 4 months)
• Acute sadness – crying
• Physical pangs of pain including loss of appetite and disturbed sleep
• Emotional pain accompanied by dejection, hopelessness, lack of concentration
• Fears of life after death, nightmares, ghosts
• Disorganisation
• Strong guilt feelings and questioning of self and others, particularly in the case of a sudden death
• Feelings of anger at the departed for leaving them
• Bereaved may reject offers to comfort them.

Adaptation to life without the deceased (6 months to 18 months)
• People begin to adjust to their lives without the lost person
• Sense of isolation
• Fearful of forgetting the deceased
• Less crying and irritability
• Exacerbation of existing personality problems. Children with low self-esteem may be at a greater risk of emotional behavioural difficulties.

• Getting on with life
• Returned sense of humour and play
• Able to participate emotionally in new relationships
• Changed relationship with the deceased – able to think of the deceased without pain
• Reduction in physical/emotional symptoms
• Less guilt.

Children’s understanding and reaction to grief according to age
(Adapted from “Children’s understanding of death” Barnardos. p. 28 – 32.)
The following are guides only – children will differ in their reactions and grasp of events for a range of reasons other than age alone.

Infants (0 – 2 years)
• Infants do not understand the meaning of death
• They may display anxiety when separated from a loved one
• They may appear upset, subdued and uninterested in their surroundings.

Ages 2 – 5 years
• No understanding of the permanency of death
• May search for the missing person
• May feel responsible for the death in some way
• May become apathetic and depressed
• May regress to an earlier stage of development e.g. thumbsucking, bedwetting, tantrums or may become clingy etc.
• May develop fears of going to sleep
• May worry that other loved ones may die.

How you can help
• Continuity of normal routine e.g. mealtimes and bedtime
• Offer physical comfort
• Explain the death in clear simple language, using words like “dead” and “died”.
• Do not use terms like “gone to sleep” or “passed away”
• You may need to repeat the same information again and again
• Permit them to ask questions and be consistent in your answers
• Reassure them that they had nothing to do with the death and of the well-being
of other family members.

Ages 5 – 7 years
• Beginning to realise the permanency of death, but their idea of life after death is still vague
• May have concerns about how the deceased is feeling or thinking in the grave
• May have a lot of questions about aspects of the death e.g. how the person died,
what they looked like, the funeral, heaven, coffins etc.
• The reaction of their peers is important, may feel ‘different’ to them
• Their peers may be awkward about the death and avoid contact
• They may become the target of bullying.

How you can help
• Encourage the child to talk and cry about the deceased if they wish to, otherwise respect their silence
• Answer questions and provide as much factual information about the death as possible
• Reassure them that thinking and feeling ceases after death
• Be vigilant in relation to bullying.

Ages 9 – 12 Years
• Understand the finality and universality of death
• Awareness of their own mortality and may worry about their own death
• May display psychosomatic symptoms
• May wish to stay at home close to parents
• May display anger.

How you can help
• Dispel fears about their own health or the health of other loved ones by offering reassurance
• Encourage them to go to school
• Allow them to express their anger, offering appropriate ways to do so.

• Fully understand the finality, universality and inevitability of death. Their experience of death is similar to adults
• May feel a range of feelings: guilt, regret, anger, loneliness etc.
• Death adds to the already confused array of emotions
• May appear to not care about the death
• May seek support outside of the family.

How you can help
• Offer them time to listen
• Allow them to express their grief in their own way
• Be prepared for mood swings.

Note: If parents are grieving themselves, they may be emotionally unable to support their other children. In this instance, another supportive adult in the child’s life, e.g. other family members, friends, neighbours may need to offer emotional support.

It should be remembered that for children with special educational needs, their understanding of what has happened will be in line with their developmental age.

Reproduced from the document “Responding to Critical Incidents: An Advice Pack for Schools”.
© National Educational Psychological Service