The way in which children experience and express grief after a
significant loss in their lives is influenced by many things;
the nature of the loss, the manner in which the loss occurs; their
previous relationship with the lost person or object; personality;
previous life experience including other losses; their physical
and emotional health; developmental 'stage'; the familial and
social environment in which the loss occurs; behaviour modelled
by adults in their environment; and most importantly, the availability
or otherwise of understanding and loving support.
The impact of loss affects children in very similar
ways to those of adults, but their expressions of grief are often
different, and therefore easily missed or misunderstood.
Whatever their age at the time the loss occurs,
children may cry initially and later remain dry eyed even when
adults around them are crying. Visually, the comparison between
an expressive adult's grief and that of a child or adolescent
may appear dramatically different, making it easy for adults to
make sweeping pronouncements that 'children are resilient and
get over things easily; they soon forget'. Remarks like this are
inaccurate and often make children and young people angry. They
feel as if their grief is minimised at best, believed to be non-existent
Children and young people frequently cry on the
inside. Tears outwardly expressed make them feel embarrassed,
different, and vulnerable. They desperately need to remain part
of the group' , no different to their peers; and they need to
convince themselves that life will continue in a positive way
despite their loss experience.
In grief, children and young people, like adults,
tend to become an exaggerated version of their former selves.
If they were socially outgoing before, they may become even more
social and appear 'shallow' to adults who find the idea of social
activities abhorrent. If they were previously shy or withdrawn,
they may become more so in grief and concern adults who believe
it is important to 'let go of the past and get on with life'.
They may act out in anger at the world for destroying their hopes
and illusions ; at parents and other significant adults for not
being able to prevent the event that is causing them pain. For
example, four year old Timothy felt very angry with his parents
for not saving the life of his little sister who died in fairly
traumatic circumstances. Before this event he had seen them as
wise and all powerful , able to fix everything , able to make
his world safe, manageable and predictable.
Sometimes children's anger is an attempt to invite
their parents or other caregivers back into a parenting role.
When parents grieve, the child or young person may feel abandoned
or unimportant, as if they have lost not only the person who died,
but those who grieve as well. Or they may fear that everything
in their world is out of control. and unconsciously try to challenge
someone to restore order and predictability.
One of the most common and significant indicators
of the distress experienced by grieving children manifests in
SLEEP DISTURBANCES. The underlying emotion that results in sleep
disturbances is usually fear, a pronounced aspect of children's
grief. They may have difficulty going off to sleep, fear being
in the dark, or wake from dreams that may be violent or traumatic.
They may call out for comfort and reassurance, or seek safety
and security in the warmth of someone else's bed. Whatever the
story content of the dream, fears are usually about the possibility
of their own death, or the death of someone else who is important
to them. Almost every grieving child we have worked with has eventually
expressed the belief that if they stay awake, or sleep with the
person whose death they fear, they will notice changes in breathing,
notice anything that might be wrong, and be able to save their
life. If they go to sleep, maybe they too won't wake up again;
if they leave a bereaved parent to sleep alone, maybe the parent
will be tempted to invite someone else into their bed and the
deceased parent will be forgotten.
Allowing a grieving child to find comfort in
the bed of another, however close the relationship , is not a
good long term solution, even though it is an understandable one.
After all, who in a grieving household is likely to have the energy
to take the child back to bed, listen to their fears, provide
reassurance, make the child's bedroom feel safe again, and stay
until they are once again enveloped in sleep? It is much easier
to allow the child to slip under the blankets and receive comfort
from a wordless hug , especially if the parent or sibling also
experiences comfort from the exchange. Many grieving families
in these circumstances need understanding support and some creative
suggestions so that children's anxieties can be addressed in ways
that are helpful in the long term. It may be useful to read section
4 in 'The Grief of Our Children'
(ABC Books, 1998), especially pages 158-159.
A heavy sense of responsibility is another common
childhood grief reaction. If a sibling has died, the remaining
child or children may feel as if they have to be of such value
to their parents that they can fill the void left by the child
who has died, that they can make the parents happy again, and
give them a reason for living. So much to worry about; so much
responsibility for life, death and other people's happiness seems
to run around in conscious and unconscious circles that make the
child feel as if their insides are being tied in knots. Starting
to sound familiar? A lot like the feelings you as an adult may
When we as adults grieve the same death that
our children grieve, it is often difficult to find the energy,
patience and creativity required to provide the help we may think
they need. If you have concerns about a grieving child in your
care and are unable or unwilling to use counselling services available,
write to us at our email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We are happy to answer questions or make suggestions.
Children are welcome to do the same. We hope in the near future
to create a 'chat room' on our web site so that those who grieve
or who care for grieving children can share experiences and helpful
suggestions. We will also develop a 'chat room' for grieving children
which we hope will feel empowering at a time of great vulnerability
in their lives.