It's important to remember that children experience grief as well as adults. The UK organisation Child Bereavement UK reports that every year in the UK over 20,000 children and young people under the age of 18 experience the death of a parent and that around 6% of schoolchildren are grieving the death of a close friend.
Clearly children are individuals and some will understand death better than others. In general terms, children under 3 do not really understand death, although they will react to the absence of a known person, and they will respond to the emotions and feelings of those around them.
By the age of 4, children will have experience of separation, for example being with a child minder or at nursery. Their experience is that separation is temporary and death is therefore seen as someone “going away” with the expectation that they will come back.
By around the age of 7 the permanence of death is beginning to be understood, and the child will ask questions which explore this concept. Children at this age will also explore their feelings of sadness, and will also begin to recognise that death can happen to other people as well as the person they grieve.
Coping with feelings
If you're supporting children after a death, it's important to remember that children grieve too. They often express their grief through their behaviour. They may become quieter, or more easily tearful or angry in everyday situations. They may have physical symptoms, for example a sore tummy.
When someone dies, children usually realise something is wrong. They need help to understand what has happened and to express their feelings. Here are some thoughts that you may find helpful.
It’s important to be honest with children, you should tell them the person has died, and explain what this means using words they understand. Help children understand that death is natural: all living things die, accidents happen, and illness and old age are all part of the life cycle of people and animals.
Children may feel hurt or angry that the person has gone, or may feel it happened because of something they said or did. It's important to allow children to express these feelings, and to reassure them that they are not to blame.
Children will move in and out of their grief – sad and tearful one moment, and maybe playing the next. It is important to recognise this is normal and to try and support them.