Children don’t react to death in the same way as adults and their reactions are often dictated by the age of the child.
Children always to respond in a much more natural way to death than an adult, they are curious and are not afraid to show their curiosity and their feelings especially when they are very young. Most children will follow their parents or a significant adult in their lives when it comes to something out of their normal situation and their way of understanding and dealing with a death of someone close is no different.
Unlike when our grandparents were young, death is no longer such a mystery; children watch movies and television, as they get older they have access to the internet and in general death is not something to be hidden away and only spoken about in whispers as it was once, especially in the hearing of children.
Under the age of 3:
Very young children, under the age of 3 do not have the life experience to help them understand death. They will not really understand what death means or that it is permanent. They, probably more than any other age, will watch your reactions and copy those. It is alright to cry in front of young children, to let them see that you are sad, but remember to focus on the positives and remember any special connection the child may have had with the person who has passed away. Keeping life as close to normal as possible especially with their routines is important.
4 – 6 Year Old:
As the child gets older they gain some understanding of death, although they still don’t understand that is permanent and will often think the person is sleeping or away on holiday. This is the age where the child may think they have done something wrong and this is why their relative has died, so it is important to give reassurances, and again talk about the good times and emphasize the positive. Be very careful with your word choices; saying some died because they were ‘sick’ can lead to worry every time someone has a cold or is unwell.
Some of the most common ways that children of this age show grief are bowel or bladder disturbances, or not wanting to go to sleep or sleep alone. Take the extra time needed to reassure the child and perhaps get them to draw with you and tell stories about how they are feeling and about the person they are missing.
7 – 11 Year Old:
By the time children are 7 – 9 years old, they understand that death is irreversible. They are more likely to be concerned about their parents and worry that they too will die. They will ask a lot of questions, some of which may seem rather morbid, but try to answer these questions as honestly as possible while keeping the conversation at the child’s level and not overwhelming them with information that could confuse them or lead them to worry about other things.
Grief can be manifested in different ways as they get older such as problems at school, anti-social and aggressive behavior with their peers, withdrawal or becoming clingy. As with the younger children, it is very important to reassure them that they didn’t do or say anything to cause the death.
By the time they are 10 they usually understand that death is natural and inevitable and more often than not will model their parent’s behavior.
Although this is a very general age group, adolescents tend to react in a similar way to adults, although their reactions can vary from day to day, or even hour to hour. While they may want to be treated as an adult, there will be times when they need to be reassured like a young child and the death of someone close makes this more likely as they struggle to understand and accept their loss. They may also gravitate more towards their friends at this age as they feel they are more understanding and may be able to express their emotions more openly than with some family. This can often be a time of conflict as the younger person tries to come to terms with what has happened and with see-sawing emotions more stress can be added to an already stressful situation.
Children see people, especially those close to them, expressing their grief and through experience learn how to grieve. Although your natural instinct will be to shield them from the reality, let them see your sadness and let them know it is normal and acceptable. They should understand that tears, with support, can help people get past the worst of their sadness and that it is normal to be upset. It also teaches them, that life does continue as normal, just with a slightly different version of normal.