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Children and young people may not understand death or what it means to be dead but they can and do feel someone’s absence intensely.

Children and young people are often considered ‘the forgotten mourners’, the ‘invisible mourners’ or ‘the silent mourners’ when a death occurs. Society often believes that children will bounce back and get over things very quickly.

However, for all children and young people, their view and understanding of the world is dependent on their age and stage of development. Some children may not have the emotional and cognitive ability yet to understand when something painful happens. They struggle to make sense of a significant death in their lives.

But children while they may not understand what has happened, they can and do feel the absence of someone in their lives. As adults, we should never underestimate the depth and intensity of how a child or young person no matter what their age feels when someone they loved dies. This is at the core of the work of Rainbows. We meet children and young people who have very significant feelings following a death that they cannot put into words, that they cannot make sense of. We meet them in a safe space to support the identification and expression of those very feelings.

Quote “When you can talk about your feelings, they can become less overwhelming, less upsetting and less scary” Dr Dan Siegal

Please select from questions below:


Is children’s and young people grief the same as adults?

Children unlike adults, grieve in spurts, in short moments of intense feelings of sadness and upset. Children and young people cannot cope with difficult feelings over long time periods – as adults do. They can appear to jump in and out of those intense difficult feelings for short periods and then they carry on with their everyday activities as if nothing has happened. These moments can be sudden and unexpected, very often when a child/young person is tired, hungry or overwhelmed by a situation. This is very common and to be expected but can often be misunderstood and misinterpreted as something being very wrong. When this is met with insight and understanding, it can be very supportive moment for a child, young person and parent/caregiver.

How a child or young person’s age and stage of development can impact how they experience a death
A child’s/young person’s age and stage of development is a key factor in how children and young people respond and react to a death. While every child and young person grieves differently, there are some general responses and reactions that can be helpful to be aware of. See below. A key issue to be aware of is that as a child and young person grows and develops they can have new insights, understanding and feelings in relation to the death – even if the death was several years ago. As children get older and move through the developmental stages their understanding of what has happened deepens. This can mean that as they can revisit the death as if it just occurred and often experience a renewed sense of grief and loss. This can be particularly confusing and worrying for parents and guardians It can be helpful to understand that grief and loss can impact at many different ages and stages across the life span especially for children and young people – we do not forget those that were very dear to us – we bring them in our hearts and in our memories through life. Note: This is a general indication only and cannot be considered specific to each child. The following are some common responses to grief at different ages Remember, not all of these will be experienced by all children or young people Young children: Early Primary: Junior /Senior Infants  
  • Little real understanding of death - can be looking for the person who has died
  • Can very much feel the absence of the person
  • Little understanding of why or how this has happened
  • Can blame themselves for the death
  • Can be anxious; have increased fears, such as of the dark, of others' safety – will I die?
  • Can need constant reassurance - clinginess – wanting to be near you or others
  • Believe in magic – magical thinking, the person will come back, they caused this to happen
  • Can have dreams about, or sense the presence of, the person who has died
  • Can be very confused and anxious - can result in irritability ,frustration
Middle Primary: 2nd – 4th Class Children at approximately age 8 – 10/11, this age are starting to think more logically, and they are better able to see death as permanent (however don’t be surprised if they still view it as reversible). They will ask questions and want very specific answers. They start thinking about how the loss will affect them over the long term.  
  • Beginning to understand that death is final
  • Can be very anxious about the safety of family and friends, and themselves – will I die?
  • Can try very hard to please adults and not worry them
  • Can feel stronger emotional reactions, such as anger, guilt, sense of rejection
  • Can feel different from others – can be a key issue for bereaved children who meet/see others who have both parents, grandparents, all their siblings.
  • Can take on more adult responsibilities, trying very hard to please
  • Changed behaviour that is sometimes seen as acting out
  • Anxiety and concern for safety of self and others – ‘The world is no longer safe.’
  • Worries about something bad happening again
  • Nightmares and intrusive thoughts
Older Primary: 4th – 6th Class /early teens: 11-14 years  
  • Hard reality of the death and loss can be intensely felt and understood
  • Can experience intense feelings - rage, revenge, guilt, blame, sadness, relief, worry
  • Begin to fear death for themselves and others
  • May not have language to adequately express complex or difficult feelings
  • Often need to know details of the death and will ask specific questions to try and make sense of the situation.
  • May need to go over facts again and again – Can be repeated detailed questions about death and dying -
  • Can take on role of the person that has died
  • Can be angry at life and the world as they struggle to make sense of the death
  • Can at times, withdraw from social situations and friends
  • Can have nightmares and intrusive thoughts
Young people/ Teens/Teenagers:  
  • In transition between childhood and adulthood
  • A time of great physical, emotional and psychological change
  • Relationship with peers is becoming very significant
  • They can have a high need to feel in control, trying to become independent and separate from parents and family - be grown up
  • Generally, have a more mature understanding of death
  • However, teenage world can be shattered by loss – sense of self, life & world can be shattered as they struggle for to develop their own personnel identity/autonomy/independence
  • Can lead to a paradox of wanting to distance from parents but also needing closeness at a time of loss and change within a family
Can also:  
  • Have difficulty talking about inner feelings to adults /others – more hidden
  • Can seek to protect parents
  • Tend not to share worries/sadness with peers
  • Often, hide real feelings from peers
  • Can often be left to fend for themselves
  • Can have mood swings, bang doors walk away
  • Can blame rather than take responsibility
  • Can drop out of activities
  • Struggle to prepare for a future that is uncertain- what’s the point?
  • Use sport as a release
  • Watch sad movies or read books about loss
  • Can just want to be left alone with their thoughts and feelings
  • Can be expected to take on adult roles, be mature beyond their years - accelerated maturity
  • Can feel their trust/belief in the world is shaken, uncertain
  • Can cope and adapt very well
  • Reactions can be compounded/exasperated by normal teenage developmental issues
What grief and loss can look like in a child or young person?

The impact of grief and loss can also have a range of physical, emotional, and social reactions for children and young people. It can be very helpful for parents and caregivers to have an awareness and understanding of what that might look like in children and young people so that changes in behaviour can be met with insight, understanding, patience and reassurance.

It is important to highlight that these are generally temporary.




Possible Physical Reactions/Responses

  • Stomach or head aches
  • Knot in the stomach/feeling sick, nauseous
  • Sore throat/dry mouth
  • Loss of appetite or overeating
  • Low energy levels
  • Low concentration levels
  • Increased illnesses, colds and flu
  • Weakness in the muscles – may find physical activities difficult
  • Frequent visits to the doctor
  • Nightmares, dreams, sleep difficulty





Possible Emotional Responses

  • Can need increased attention (connection) with family members, main carers
  • Can be overly sensitive, easily frustrated, fight/argue easily
  • Can feel Insecure and have safety concerns
  • Can experience feelings of guilt, blame – if I had done/or not done xx or said/or not said xx this would not have happened
  • Fear, anger, rage, regret, sadness, confusion
  • Feelings of loneliness, isolation, emptiness
  • Concern about being treated differently
  • Change in values, what is important- can be frustrated with ordinary concerns of peers
  • Can be withdrawn, have a sense of hopelessness, intense sadness

Look behind/beyond the behaviour – what lies underneath – feelings and emotions spilling out - a child/young person who is struggling




Possible Social Reactions/Responses

  • Highly sensitive, over sensitive
  • Easily frustrated over small things – can struggle to take things in their stride as before
  • Noisy outbursts, demanding
  • Become aggressive, frequent fighting
  • Non-compliance with requests
  • Can be a change in relationship with teachers, friends, family members
  • Isolation or withdrawal from friends and activities
  • Hyperactive-like or regressive behaviour
  • Increased need for attention


Look behind/beyond the behaviour – what lies underneath – feelings and emotions spilling out - a child/young person who is struggling






In school – common responses

  • Difficulty focusing and concentration- grief and loss can be exhausting
  • Forgetfulness, memory loss
  • Failing or declining grades
  • Incomplete work, or poor-quality work
  • Over achievement, trying to be perfect
  • Language errors and word finding problems
  • Inattentiveness, daydreaming grief and loss can be emotionally and psychologically draining
  • Increased absence or reluctance to go to school

Children cannot focus or concentrate when struggling with significant life change – give it time and lots of patience, listening and reassurance




With their world view

  • Anger with a higher being e.g. God
  • Questions ‘why me? why my family? why now?’
  • Questions about the meaning of life
  • Confusion about where the person who has died is
  • Feelings of abandonment and emptiness
  • Doubting or questioning previous beliefs
  • Seeing the future/life as meaningless
  • Shattered dreams about the future





Other possible key factors that can also impact on children and young people:

Changed Family circumstances including economic/social factors:

The death of a family member can at times result in additional changes within a family, which in turn can further compound the impact of the death for a child/young person

  • A family may have to sell their house and move house/location
  • Child/young person may have to move to a different school, leaving friends and familiar surroundings
  • Child may not be able to return home after school as was the norm and may have to be in the care of a child minder
  • Child or young person may not be able to engage in activities as previously



How the adults in a child’s life are coping themselves:

It is very natural that parents try and protect children and young people from the harsh reality of a death. Parents and carers often try and mask, hide or minimise their own grief and loss in an attempt to protect their child/young person. This can result in a child or young person feeling that they cannot talk about the person that died or express feelings that may upset their parent/caregiver.

It can be supportive for family members including children and young people to share and talk about the person and their memories of what the person meant to each family member in an open way, even if this causes upset, tears and hearing about difficult feelings. This openness and honesty models a “good grief” coping model within a family and supports children and young people to begin to make a new meaning and adapt to life without their special person.

Who has died and the relationship with a child/young person:

A child’s and young person response to a death is very dependent on the relationship with the person that died. A person they did not see very often or spend time with will not have the same impact as a person who was very much part of a child’s life where much time was spent together and who was very much loved and cared for by the child/young person

All children/young people response to a death will be individual and unique:

All children and young people, like adults, have individual personality, strengths and differences. Some children and young people can manage and cope with difficult times and situations, while others may struggle and may need more support and nurturing. This is what being human is for us all and needs to be met with awareness, understanding and compassion.

Circumstances of the death

When a death is unexpected, sudden or in tragic circumstances – it can be a cause of further and deeper upset. This is especially true when the person dies before their time – too young – too soon. This sense of unfairness and very often anger in relation to the circumstances can lead to even more intense feelings that can complicate and compound grief and loss. For many children and young people the death of their parent, their sibling, their friend can be profound.

It is important to be aware that death as a result of tragedy ,violent crime, or other tragic circumstances can have a greater impact on a child or young person. A child or young person who was present when their person died or was  there in the aftermath of the tragic death – may or could need professional support in time.  This will be different for each child or young person. Consult with your G.P. if you observe persistent and repeated pattens of changed behaviours over time that impacts on a child’s/young person’s everyday routines.

Culture and Religion:

Very often, families hold particular belief systems that can be a buffer and offer consolation and comfort in the face of a death. Children and young people may be supported and find comfort within those belief systems. Others particularly older young people may question, challenge or react to cultural norms and belief systems.


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