School Age

When someone dies: helping children cope

When someone dies: helping children cope

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What children might feel when someone dies

There's a big range of normal when it comes to children's feelings after a death.

Many children show sadness, anger and anxiety. Some might be confused and struggle to understand what has happened. Some might not seem affected by the death at all. Or they might feel guilty that something they said or did caused the death. Some might show signs of separation anxiety and be scared that you or another caregiver might also die.

Your child will probably react more strongly to the death of someone he saw regularly and liked - for example, a friendly neighbour- than to the death of a family member he rarely visited. Young children can also react in the same ways to the death of a loved pet and the death of a person.

Strong feelings can be overwhelming for children. Some children might get quiet and withdrawn, and others might show challenging behaviour. Our articles on encouraging good behaviour, connecting with your preschooler and connecting with your school-age child might give you some ideas for handling these situations.

Talking about feelings when someone dies

Children - especially younger children - can have 'big' feelings when someone dies, but they don't always have the words to express these feelings. This can be confusing and frustrating for them. So it's often a good idea to start by helping your child identify how she's feeling.

Then you can let your child know that his feelings are normal. You might tell your child that you feel something similar. For example, 'Morris, you seem really angry that Nanna died. I'm feeling angry too because I really loved her, and I don't like it that she can't be here with us anymore'.

If your child knows that it's OK to talk about how she's feeling - and that you can cope with her feelings - she'll be more likely to talk more. And if she can talk more, she'll be better able to seek help when she feels overwhelmed. For some children, using toys, books, music or drawing might help them to express or show their feelings.

Sometimes it can help to give your child ideas of how to cope when he's having strong feelings. For example, 'Dimitri, when you're feeling really sad and missing Grandpa, maybe you could come and give me a cuddle. Then we could do something that makes us feel a bit happier'.

Over time, and with help from their parents and caregivers, most children learn to cope with strong feelings about death. As your child finds these feelings easier to manage, you'll probably find things easier too. If you're concerned about how your child is coping after someone dies, talk with your child's GP, your child and family health nurse or the counsellor at your child's school.

Tips to help children who are dealing with death

When someone dies, you can help children of all ages by:

  • trying to keep to a routine
  • letting them know that it's OK to play, be happy and have fun
  • telling teachers or caregivers what has happened so that they support children.

Children's understanding of death depends on their age and development, so there are also particular things you can do for children of different ages.

Toddlers and preschoolers
Children in this age group understand death as a move to another place, but they don't understand that the person is gone forever.

Your child might ask whether she can visit the person who died and when the person is coming back. She might ask the same questions over and over. This is her way of trying to understand what has happened.

Some of your child's old habits might return - for example, he might wet the bed or start waking at night.

You can help your toddler or preschooler by:

  • answering questions openly and honestly - for example, 'Aunty Nala died. Her body has stopped working. We won't be able to visit her anymore'
  • supporting, reassuring and comforting your child - for example, by giving your child a cuddle when she's sad
  • being patient with repeated questions
  • gently reminding your child that she won't be seeing her loved one again, if you think your child believes the loved one is coming back.

School-age children
At this age, children understand that death is the end of life, but they might believe that death can be prevented or that not everyone will die.

You can help your school-age child by:

  • letting him know that the death wasn't his fault and he won't 'catch it'
  • answering his questions openly and honestly - for example, if your child asks whether you'll die, you could say, 'Yes, I'll die one day. Everyone dies, but it mostly happens when people are old or very sick'
  • suggesting he do a memorial activity - for example, planting a tree, writing a letter or drawing a picture
  • telling the parents of your child's close friends so that they know he's going through these feelings.