Dependent on their age, children will have different understandings of grief and loss. Their age will also impact on how they react to their loss.
It is also important to remember that children often struggle to manage intense emotions. They manage them by ‘puddle jumping’ through their emotions. They may be sad and distressed one minute but then switch immediately to laughing and playing happily. They will return to their bereaved emotions at another time when they are able to cope with those emotions again. This is a completely normal way of coping, but one that parents can find quite distressing because they may worry that their child does not seem to care about their loss.
Birth to 6 months
A baby of this age may experience feelings of separation or abandonment. They are aware the person is missing and this can result in anxiety or distress.
6 months to 2 years
If a child of this age faces the loss of someone extremely close to them, they may protest at their absence by crying and angry tears. They may become withdrawn or lose their interest in toys and feeding. More mature toddlers may start actively seeking the deceased trying to find them.
2 to 5 years
Children at this age do not realise that death is irreversible or the finality of it. For example, a four-year-old may be sad that their sibling has died but then ask when they are coming home. They may still expect to see them alive and well in the future.
Due to their limited understanding, they may appear to outwardly react less than an older child initially. They may go back to playing as normal straight after being told. This lack of understanding can be especially difficult for grieving parents to cope with.
5 to 10 years
Children have acquired a wider understanding of death and what it entails. They begin to understand the finality of death and that the person who has died will not be able to return.
By the age of 7, children usually accept that death is inevitable and that all people eventually will die. This can result in them being worried about other loved ones around them dying, especially if this has already happened to their sibling or another loved one close to them.
It is important that children of this age have the details of death, funerals and burial processes explained to them as openly and as honestly as possible but only giving as much information as they ask for. It is important to encourage them to show their emotions and express their feelings and answer any questions they may have.
Children become more confused if told someone is simply sleeping or gone as it may result in them becoming fearful of falling asleep or seeing other people sleeping.
It is essential to explain to children that it is not their fault in any way and to explain simply but truthfully that the person they love has died.