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There is no right way to respond when you are told that someone you love has died and children, like adults, react and grieve in different ways. However, the following list gives the most common immediate and longer term grief reactions from children:
The child’s reaction to the death of someone close to them will also be affected by their age and developmental stage. The following gives an idea of a child’s understanding of death at various stages and how they might respond to it.
Children at this stage have not developed their sense of time, so any separation is experienced as a sense of loss. They will be aware that someone is missing, be upset that their routine is not the same and express their feelings by crying, clinginess, not sleeping or not feeding well.
Children under the age of five years have not yet grasped that death is final and that when someone dies they will not come back. It is not unusual for children in this age group to play games where there is a reunion with the dead person. Like very young children, they will cry and become clingy. Magical thinking may lead children to believe that they were responsible for the death, which can lead to feelings of guilt. They may become confused by euphemisms used to describe death and become frightened of ‘going to sleep’ or ‘going on a journey’.
Children are beginning to understand that when someone dies it is irreversible and the body will not function any longer. Children can still become confused by the use of euphemisms to describe death and may still be prone to magical thinking. We have also found that this age group are more likely to scare themselves with thoughts about ghosts and skeletons. There may also be questions around death, funerals and what happens to the body.
By now children are beginning to understand the finality of death and become frightened that they too are going to die. These fears can affect their behaviour and they do not always want to acknowledge their feelings, or, indeed, have the words to express them.
Adolescents grieve as adults but their emotions are likely to be more powerful. It is possible that they will find being ‘different’ difficult to manage, which may lead to isolation from their peer group, changes in their behaviour and risk taking behaviours.