Signs of grief in a child

Children and young people may react in a number of ways after the death of someone close.

Understanding the signs of grief in a child means we can give them the help they need. These can include both emotional and physical responses.

Here’s our guide to how bereaved children, young people and teenagers might behave, and how adults can support them.

Emotional signs of grief in children

For many young people and children, shock is the first response when hearing that someone has died. Shock is a protective state, a small window of time to process bad news. Its communicated differently by everyone – children and young people are no exception.

Here’s what some shock responses might look like:

  • They might laugh upon being told of the death.

This is a reflex reaction. The brain is protecting them from the news of the death.

This isn’t the child or young person being disrespectful.

  • They might then ask if the person telling them the news is joking.

This is a common reaction. Emotionally understanding that someone has died is difficult.

This isn’t the child or young person not rationally understanding that someone has died.

  • They might start to tidy up, put away toys or do homework.

 This is the child or young person struggling to process information. They’re trying to ‘carry on as normal’. 

This isn’t the child not being bothered by the news of death.

  • They might start playing.

This is common. Children and young people aren’t able to focus on grief for long periods of time. It’s pretty normal for them to get distracted.

  • They might cry.

How to help

  • Try not to appear alarmed if a response seems inappropriate. Remember, shock can be expressed in different ways.
  • Reassure them that any feelings of disbelief are normal.
  • Keep your language clear and simple. Tell them the truth in a way that they can understand.
  • Let them know that you are there for them.

Denial is a protective mechanism. It may look like a child or young person has not accepted that their loved one has died. It can also be difficult to see. However, denial is part of the bereavement process – it is a normal sign of grief in a child. It can allow them time to process the death.

Here’s what some denial responses might look like:

  • Not wanting to leave a certain place, like home or a hospital ward. They’re scared of leaving the person who has died behind. They might expect them to come back to that place.
  • Not wanting to go to school or go to bed. This is in case the person who has died turns up when they’re not there.
  • Adopting certain behaviours, such as obsessively tidying their room or furiously brushing their teeth. This is to impress the person who has died when they come back.
  • Actively search for the person who has died. For younger children, this might be looking under beds or in toy boxes. For older children and young people, it might be looking in local areas or workplaces.

How to help

  • Talk openly to them. Let them know that they can talk about what has happened. Reassure them that they won’t get in trouble for asking questions relating to the death.
  • When talking about death, avoid using metaphors. This could be something like ‘Daddy has gone to sleep’. Phrases like this might make them think that the person who has died will come back.
  • If they are searching for the person who has died, gently explain to them that the person won’t be coming back.
  • Respect that denial is a protective mechanism, and should go away in time. 

Anger is an understandable response to bereavement. It’s very common. Bereaved children and young people can find it difficult to understand their grief and emotions, as well as articulate how they are feeling. This can lead to anger.

Here’s where the anger might be directed:

  • Towards themselves, for something they did/didn’t do. They might think this led to the death of their loved one.
  • Towards other people, such as nurses. They might feel like they did not do enough to prevent the death.
  • Towards the person who died. They might feel like they didn’t give them time to say goodbye. They may also feel abandoned by them. 

How a child or young person communicates their anger can vary. It often depends on their age, and their understanding of death.

Here’s what some anger responses might look like:

  • Younger children may have tantrums and become aggressive towards others.
  • Older children might become disruptive at school and get into fights with other children.
  • Teenagers might turn to alcohol or drugs in an attempt to escape the anger they feel. They might become involved in offending and become known to the police. 

How to help

  • If their anger is causing them to hurt themselves or others – explain that it is okay to feel angry, but not okay to cause hurt.
  • Encourage them to express their anger safely. They could channel it towards a pillow, or to go for a run. 
  • Reassure them that it’s okay to feel angry towards the person who has died. This is very natural, and nothing to feel guilty about.
  • They might direct their anger at the person they feel closest to. If this is you, try not to take it personally. Remain calm and present – this will let them know that you are there for them.

Bargaining is a common bereavement response among children and young people. They may plead for the return of their loved one who has died, in exchange for a promise. They might say they’ll stop doing something or act a certain way.

Although it can be upsetting to see, bargaining can act as a distraction. It can give them a little break from grieving.

Here’s what some bargaining responses might look like:

  • Pleading to a deity or higher power to bring back the person who has died. This might be in exchange for a pledge or behaviour that the child or young person believes will please them. 

For example: “Please God, if you bring my sister back, I promise I’ll be good for mummy and daddy”.

  • Bargaining behaviour might change over time. 

For example, it might begin by bargaining for the return of their loved one. This could change bargaining their life for the return of the person who has died.

How to help

  • Gently explain that there is nothing that anyone can say, or do, that will bring the person who has died back.
  • Reassure them that they don’t need to try to be perfect to bring back the person who has died.
  •  Understand that they might continue to bargain. It can help them feel like they’re more in control.
  •  Remember that bargaining behaviour should disappear as they move towards accepting the death.

Guilt is anger turned internally. Bereaved children and young people are vulnerable to feeling guilty for the death of someone close. It’s very easy for them to become convinced that the death was their fault.

Feelings of guilt can be heightened if a child felt annoyed or angry to the person before they died. They might also feel guilty if they’ve experienced a little bit of relief during their grieving. 

Here’s what some guilt responses might look like:

  • Feeling guilty for a momentary lapse in rules. This might be being allowed to stay up later, or watching television for longer than normal.
  • Feeling guilty if they forget to think of the person who has died, even for as little as five minutes.
  • Feeling guilty because they misbehaved or told a lie. This is more common in younger children.

How to help

  • Don’t underestimate how a bereaved child might feel responsible for the death of a loved one.
  • Reassure them that they are not to blame for the death of someone close.
  • Talk about how and why they feel they are responsible for the death. Then, explain how and why they are not responsible.
  • Encourage them to talk about their thoughts and feelings when they need to.
  • Remember: not all bereaved children and young people will tell you that they feel guilty. Increased anxiety and worry can be a sign of this. Even if they haven’t said they feel guilty, reassure them that the death wasn’t their fault.

Bereaved children and young people will experience a form of depression as they grieve. This often sets in when they understand that the person who has died isn’t coming back.

Here’s what depressive responses might look like:

  • Having low energy. They have little interest in hobbies and don’t feel like eating.
  • Saying they feel ‘heavy’ or weak.
  • Being confused and appearing absent minded.
  • Feeling anxious about other loved ones dying.
  • Worrying that they’ll forget about the person who has died.

It’s important to remember that depressive responses are completely normal in the grieving process. This is different from clinical depression, which is a mental illness. 

If you’re worried about a child or young person’s welfare, please contact your GP.

How to help

  • Let them know that they can safely discuss their worries with you, at the right time for them.
  • Don’t try to make them ‘snap out of it’. They need time to express their sadness.
  • Reassure them that their feelings are important. Remind them that they are loved, cared for and not alone. Depression can really knock their self esteem and sense of worth.
  • Remind them that they can take it one day at a time.
  • When they’re ready, encourage them to carry on with their hobbies and spend time with friends.

As the reality of the death of their loved one settles in, a child or young person will gradually move towards acceptance.

How to understand acceptance responses:

  • It’s important to recognise that acceptance means that they have understood that the person who has died isn’t coming back. Acceptance doesn’t mean that the child or young person is ‘back to normal’. 
  • The time to reach acceptance is different for everyone, including children.
  • They might still feel upset. Their lives have dramatically changed, so they might feel unsettled for a while.

How to help

  • Maintain routines and ‘normal life’. It can help children and young people cope better.
  • Help them understand that it is okay to laugh, smile and have fun. This isn’t disrespectful to the person who has died.
  • Reassure them that it’s okay not to always think about the person who has died. This doesn’t make them bad.
  • Let them know that, although things have changed, it doesn’t mean that they won’t have a happy life.
  • You can do activities together to remember the person that has died.

Physical signs of grief in children

Some bereaved children may have physical reactions to the death of a loved one. Like adults, physical signs of grief in children and young people will be different.

What this might look like:

  • Tantrums, shouting and screaming. This might be directed at their caregiver, and is more common in younger children. This happens because they’re frustrated, struggling to communicate how they’re feeling.
  • Frequent mood swings. This is more common in older children and teenagers.
  • Behaviours and moods might change over time.

How to help

  • It’s important for grieving children and young people to express their emotions. However, you need to set boundaries. You can explain that it’s okay to feel angry and sad, but it’s not okay to hit or hurt anyone.
  • If they’re becoming verbally abusive, speak to their school/college, GP or contact us.

Bereaved children and young people can sometimes lose their appetite, and experience difficulties with eating.

Appetites can change if routines or mealtimes change due to bereavement. For example, eating at a different time, different place or eating something not prepared by the person who died.

What this might look like:

  • Lack of appetite, even for favourite foods.
  • Eating more than normal.
  • Becoming fussy over food.

How to help

  • Understand that changes in appetite after someone has died is common.
  • Try to keep meal times as routine as possible.
  • If a child says they don’t want to eat, try and encourage them to eat little and often.
  • If they’re eating more than normal, don’t restrict their diet or tell them off. Food can be a comfort during grief.
  • If they’re losing weight dramatically by refusing to eat, get in touch with your GP.

Bereaved children and young people need plenty of rest. Sleep is crucial for their mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. However, their sleep patterns can change significantly after someone close has died.

What this might look like:

  • Having difficulty falling asleep, even if they’re tired.
  • Waking up a lot during the night.
  • Having nightmares and bad dreams.
  • Being scared to fall asleep, afraid they won’t wake up or someone else might die. This can tie in with people describing people dying as ‘falling asleep’.
  • Being afraid of sleeping without the light on. This includes children who were previously comfortable sleeping in the dark.

How to help

  • Talk to them whilst they’re in bed, or preparing to go to sleep. This can include reading bedtime stories, or special books for bereaved children.
  • Help them feel secure with weighted, snuggle or comfort blankets.
  • Add a few drops of calming oils, such as lavender, to their pillow. Be careful not to put it directly onto their skin.
  • Sit with them until they fall asleep. This can help them feel safer.
  • If they’re having nightmares, encourage them to share these with you. This can encourage them to talk about any worries or fears they have.
  • If they’re worried about the dark, leave the light. Reassure them that you’ll be close by during the night if they need you.

The death of someone close can make children and young people feel unsafe. This is common if the person who has died was their primary caregiver.

This might result in regressive behaviour – where they might behave or speak like they’re younger. This isn’t a sign that they’re having development problems. Rather, they’re behaving like they did when everything in their world was safe and good.

What this might look like:

  • Sucking their thumb
  • Using baby talk
  • Wetting or soiling the bed
  • Eating with their fingers

How to help

  • Don’t be alarmed if they’re unable to perform tasks that they could do before the person died.
  • Try not to show frustration if they become absent minded or forgetful.
  • If they wet the bed, it’s important to reassure them – they might be upset with themselves. Let them know it’s a very normal thing to happen when someone close dies.
  • Once they begin to feel secure again, regressive behaviour should go away.
  • If you’re worried that they’re regressing academically, get in touch with their school.
  • If you are worried that regressive behaviour is happening over a long period, call your GP or contact us.

When a child or young person is bereaved, they might let you know that they’re feeling unwell.

Sometimes the way they’re feeling is because their appetite has changed, or they’re having problems sleeping. 

Sometimes the way they’re feeling is psychosomatic, caused by the pain of their bereavement. They might be trying to communicate their emotional pain in physical terms.

What this might look like:

  • Saying they have a headache or upset tummy.
  • Being worried about getting ill and dying.
  • Saying they have similar symptoms experienced by the person who died.
  • Becoming obsessive about a particular illness, which affects their daily lives. They might fear contamination, and not be able to touch door handles or compulsively wash their hands.

How to help

  • Provide a healthy balanced diet and ensure they get quality sleep. This can help to prevent infections and colds that can occur during grief.
  • If they’re convinced that they have a serious illness or terminal illness, encourage them to see their GP – they can put their mind at ease. 
  • Be aware that your child or young person may describe symptoms that the person who has died experienced prior to death.
  • Encourage them to discuss how and where it hurts – they might be trying to explain the emotional pain they’re feeling in physical terms.

Find resources

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