Complicated grief in children

Complicated grief isn't just felt by adults - children and young people experience it too.

Grief is a natural response to the death of someone close. And all of us will experience grief in very different ways.

Complicated grief is when a bereaved person appears to be “stuck” in their grief. It’s like grief has become their way of life. It’s sometimes called complicated mourning, complicated bereavement and prolonged grief.

There isn’t a set time for how long grieving should last. However, experts agree that if someone has difficulty moving forward through grief, they’re probably experiencing complicated bereavement.

It’s important to recognise complicated grief in children and young people too. It’s not just adults that experience it.

When it comes to understanding complicated grief in children, we need to recognise different factors that increase the likelihood of it happening.

What increases the risk?

Complicated bereavement is more likely to happen if the person who has died was the child’s: 

  • Parent 
  • Sibling 
  • Best friend  
  • Someone they were dependent on

A child or young person is at higher risk of complicated grief if their loved one’s death was:

  • Sudden 
  • Unexpected  
  • A result of suicide

A bereaved child or young person may feel responsible for not preventing the death. In the case of suicide, they might also be very aware of social stigma.

A child or young person is at risk of complicated grief if they have experienced:

  • The deaths of other loved ones.
  • The deaths of a number of close people in one instance. This may have been in a terrorist attack, natural disaster or traffic accident.
  • Other losses, such as parents getting divorced.

Children and young people’s personality traits can affect developing complicated grief. The risk is increased if they have:

  • Difficulty with resillience
  • Poor coping skills

There’s also a bigger risk of complicated grief if the child experiences mental health problems.

A child or young person’s living situation can influence whether they experience complicated bereavement. The risk is increased if they are exposed to:

  • Poor housing 
  • Substance misuse 
  • Domestic violence 
  • Poverty
  • Cultural isolation
  • No access to social networks or support systems

It is important to remember that even if a child is at risk of complicated grief, it doesn’t mean they will experience it.

What are the signs of complicated grief in children?

The following signs of complicated grief can be seen in both children and adults:

  • Difficulty accepting the death happened
  • Difficulty trusting others
  • A lot of bitterness related to the death
  • Uneasiness about moving on with life
  • Not wanting to spend time with friends and loved ones
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Negative views of the future
  • Agitated behaviour

As we all experience bereavement differently, it can be difficult to identify complicated grief in children. 

However, no change at all in their grief process can be a warning sign. The child or young person might appear stuck or frozen in their bereavement. They might also appear reluctant or anxious to accept the death.

How to help a child with complicated grief

  • Remember that complicated grief in children can be difficult to identify.
  • Encourage the child or young person to talk about their feelings. Talking can help them feel supported.
  • If the child or young person has mentioned taking their own life, speak with your GP immediately.
  • Don’t be embarrassed to ask for help. 

Find resources

Visit Hope Again, our website for children and young people and get resources for children struggling with grief.