Children and young people's physical responses

Children and young people are likely to experience a range of physical responses to the loss of someone close, including:

They will also experience emotional responses.

Behaviour and mood

Some bereaved children and young people may exhibit certain physical reactions to the death of a loved one. Again, the behaviours and physical responses that some children and young people might demonstrate whilst they are grieving will differ and no two children or young people will react physically to a death in the same way.

Some bereaved children may use naughty behaviour or throw tantrums, shout and scream. This type of behaviour is most commonly directed at their caregiver or the person they feel most comfortable with. In younger bereaved children such responses can be common. The bereaved child is struggling to process and articulate their emotions and as a result they can display angry outbursts due to feeling frustrated.

Although it is important to allow the bereaved child or young person to vent their emotions it is also vital that appropriate boundaries are put in place. For example, explain to the grieving child that it is OK to feel sad, mad or angry, but it is not OK to hit or hurt someone including themselves when they feel this way.

Older children and adolescents may exhibit mood swings that are frequent and unpredictable. This may be how the adolescent behaved prior to the bereavement due to hormonal changes and puberty; however the mood swings which occur through grieving are more heightened in their intensity.

How can I help?

  • Acknowledge that the behaviours and moods of the bereaved child or young person will differ from how they were prior to the death. Remember that behaviours and moods experienced during whilst the child or young person grieves can alter over time.
  • Reassure your child or young person that feeling angry, guilty, confused and distressed is normal and encourage them to talk about how they are feeling.
  • Put in place boundaries to prevent or discourage your bereaved child or young person from hurting themselves or others. Speak with the school / college if you are concerned about your child or young person becoming physically or verbally abusive.
  • Contact Cruse Bereavement Care or your local GP if you are worried about your bereaved child or young person’s behaviour or moods.

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Appetite and eating

Bereaved children and young people can sometimes experience difficulties with eating and their appetite following the loss of a loved one.

A bereaved child or young person may have a distinct lack of appetite and state that they “Can’t face food / eating”. Even favourite foods or treats can prove unappealing to the grieving child or young person. Similarly a grieving child or young person can have a tendency to overeat or turn to food to self soothe. Bereaved children and young people can also be observed becoming fussy over food and about what they eat.

Difficulties concerning appetite and eating can be further compounded by changes in routine and altered meal times as a result of the bereavement. For instance, if the person who has died was the primary provider of meals to the child or young person, difficulties can occur when someone else takes over this task. If the bereaved child or young person is eating at different times and in different places following the death, this too can prove problematic.

If you suspect that there are drastic and sustained changes in the bereaved child or young person’s eating habits, particularly if they are losing weight dramatically through refusing to eat, a discussion with your GP might be needed. Remember to gently encourage the bereaved child or young person to eat and try to keep meal times as structured as possible.

How can I help?

  • Understand that increases / decreases in appetite in response to someone dying are common.
  • Try to keep meal times as routine as possible to promote normality.
  • Some bereaved children and young people might state that they cannot physically face the idea of eating, encourage them where possible to eat little and often.
  • If your bereaved child or young person appears to be eating much more than they would normally, try not to restrict their diet or chastise them. Food can, for some bereaved children and young people, be a comfort and afford temporary respite from their grief.

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Sleep and sleep patterns

It is essential that the bereaved child or young person receives plenty of rest. Sleep is crucial for the mental, emotional and physical well being of the child or young person. In the aftermath of the death of someone close, the sleep patterns of a bereaved child or young person can change significantly.

A bereaved child or young person, irrespective of how tired they are, might not be able to fall asleep easily or may wake throughout the night and have difficulty falling asleep again. Nightmares and bad dreams are not uncommon in bereaved children and young people and time must be given for children and young people to discuss these.

Sometimes a bereaved child or young person may be afraid to fall asleep stating that they are scared they won’t wake up again. Sometimes a bereaved child or young person may insist that the light is left on and they may display hyper vigilance which means they purposely stay awake in the hope of ensuring no one else dies or anything bad happens during the night.

If a bereaved child or young person has had the nature of their loved one’s death explained to them as “falling asleep” this can increase problems around sleep and sleep patterns.

How can I help?

Some children and young people will find it easier to sleep if you talk with them whilst they are in bed and preparing to go to sleep. Story books and books to help the bereaved child or young person better understand their feelings can be useful too. A list of books for bereaved children and young people of different ages can be found here in our bookstore.

Snuggle or comfort blankets can also be used by children and young people alike. Some bereaved children and young people feel more secure at night time if they can wrap themselves in a particular blanket that is special to them.

The use of certain calming oils such as lavender can be used to aid sleep and promote restfulness. A few droplets on to the pillow can be used, but do not place straight on to the skin.

Sometimes sitting with the bereaved child or young person (particularly those engaging in hyper vigilance) until they fall asleep can help them feel safer.

If your bereaved child or young person tells you that they are experiencing nightmares, encourage them to share them and help the child or young person to talk about any fears or worries they might have.

Some children and young people who slept in the dark prior to the person dying might now want to sleep with the light on. Leave the light on whilst reassuring the child or young person that you will always be close by during the night should they need you.

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Regression or reverting back

The death of someone close robs the bereaved child or young person of their sense of security and protection, particularly if the person who has died was the child or young person’s primary caregiver.

When this feeling of security has been impaired the bereaved child or young person may be observed to regress or revert back to behaviours and speech that were first exhibited in previous developmental stages. It is not uncommon for a bereaved child or young person to suck their thumb, use baby talk, wet / soil the bed or to eat with their fingers.

This is not a sign that the bereaved child or young person will not be able to develop intellectually or mentally, rather it is the child or young person enacting behaviours which occurred at a time when everything was good in their world, pre bereavement.

Prior to the bereavement, the child or young person would most likely have felt safe and secure and now that this security has been challenged, the child or young person seeks to “go back in time” to when things were safe and normal. Generally speaking, as the journey through bereavement progresses and the child or young person begins to feel secure again, regressive behaviour should diminish.

How can I help?

  • Try not to become alarmed if your child or young person appears to be unable to perform tasks that they were easily able to do prior to the person dying.
  • If you have concerns that your child or young person appears to be regressing academically, letting their school know might be helpful.
  • Try not to show frustration with your child or young person if they have become absent minded or forgetful, these are common responses experienced by grieving children and young people and should disappear in time.
  • If the bereaved child or young person is bed wetting and are frustrated and ashamed with themselves, reassure them that it isn’t their fault and is a normal response when someone they were close to dies.
  • If you are worried that your child or young person is displaying regressive behaviours over a long period of time contact your GP, Cruse Bereavement Care or any support agency you feel may help.

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lllness – Real and Psychosomatic

When a child or young person is bereaved it can sometimes be observed that they complain of illnesses or physical ailments in response to the emotional trauma they are experiencing. Sometimes these illnesses can be real manifestations brought on by eating too little / too much or from not getting enough proper sleep.

Commonly some bereaved children and young people experience psychosomatic illnesses in response to the death of a loved one. This does not mean that the ailment or discomfort that the child or young person complains of is “all in the mind” but rather that the discomfort parallels the emotional pain they are feeling.

For example, a bereaved child might complain of a headache or upset stomach when actually they are trying to convey their emotional pain in physical terms. Sometimes a bereaved child or young person can become anxious and fretful over the idea that they or someone close to them might fall ill and subsequently die. This is a natural response to the perceived lack of security felt by the child or young person following the bereavement.

A number of bereaved children and young people might start to complain of symptoms similar to those experienced by the person who has died prior to death. If you are finding it difficult to reassure a bereaved child or young person that they do not have a brain tumour, HIV or terminal illness it might be worth taking the child or young person to see their doctor who can explain to them that they don’t have such illnesses.

If the bereaved child or young person is becoming obsessive about a particular illness and it is dramatically affecting their daily lives (not being able to touch door handles, compulsive hand washing, for fear of possible contamination) discussion with your GP might be helpful.

How can I help?

  • If your child or young person is convinced that they have a serious illness or terminal illness encourage them to see their GP so that he / she can address such fears and put the child or young person’s mind at ease.
  • Be aware that your child or young person may describe symptoms that the person who has died experienced prior to death.
  • Providing a healthy balanced diet and ensuring the bereaved child or young person gets quality sleep can help to prevent infections and colds that can occur whilst they child or young person grieves. The child or young person’s immune system can be weakened as a result of too little food or too little sleep so nutritious food is important where possible.
  • If your bereaved child or young person is complaining of a particular ailment encourage them to discuss how and where it hurts as they might be trying to explain the emotional pain they feel in physical terms.

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