Children’s grief reactions
Although your child’s reactions to the death of his or her sibling will be unique, there are certain common emotions that are expressed in the grief process by everyone, including children. The following are some common reactions of children to death and loss.
Anxiety and fear
Anxiety is a very common reaction in children following the death of a loved one. When somebody close to them dies, a child’s sense of security in the world may be badly shaken. They may fear that they themselves, or someone else close to them, will die. They may worry there is something wrong with them or that their bodies will cease to work. Your children may cling to you or other adults around them and seek frequent expressions of love and reassurance. Some bereaved children find it hard to cope with change or ordinary problems.
“Dylan was worried about going to sleep in case he didn’t wake up like Jackson.” (Toni and Richard)
“Jacob cried. For days after, the house was swarming with people. Jacob never left us. I had him with me all the time.” (Kath)
“Natasha still gets anxious. Sometimes she doesn’t tell me about any tummy aches or bumps in case it means something much worse.” (Natalie C.)
Don’t be too worried, as things will improve over time.
In some cases, grieving children may show a decrease in activity, becoming very quiet and introspective, expressing feelings of sadness, daydreaming, or crying a lot without being able to explain why. This is normal and natural. Younger children have a short sadness-span and are usually not sad for long periods at a time.
“Jacob used to cry when he was in bed. He would say ‘I miss Lewis’.” (Kath)
“In the first few days after Molly died, there were times when I thought my two sons, Dan (10) and Tim (8) were drifting away from me. At one stage, Tim was sitting on the floor outside our bedroom window, and he was counting -34…35…36. It turned out he was counting the number of people who were coming into the house. I felt we were losing our boys then.” (Jill)
Sometimes, the child reacts in response to the parent.
“Often, if I cried, Jacob would cry, too.” (Kath)
Remember that some children never cry, and that is okay, too.
“Dan and Tim are entirely different characters. Dan is the quiet one. He never really cried. I worried about him bottling things up. He was never comfortable with me crying.” (Jill)
“Give them choices, they can cry or not.” (Jill)
After the death of a sibling, young children may revert to behaviour or habits they had previously outgrown. Some of the changes that may be noticed in a bereaved child include bed-wetting, taking a bottle, thumb sucking, demanding to sleep with the parents or fearing to be left alone with babysitters. There may be sleep problems, nightmares or a reluctance to go to bed or get up. Older children may seek the closeness of adults and become clinging in their own way, behaving more childishly for a period. In most cases, these patterns are short term and your child will move on with the help and understanding of loving adults.
“Tim regressed for a while. He worried about going to sleep. I used to sleep with him to get him to sleep. He had nightmares.” (Jill)
“Kitty, 5 years old at the time, was traumatised. We found out later that when Jesse was discovered, and while the ambulance was there, Kitty was hiding under the bed. She had heard the screaming and saw the flashing lights of the ambulance. From then on, until receiving counselling, Kitty regressed. She was clingy, cried all the time, wet her bed, and could not be apart from me at all. When Jesse died, the bottom dropped out of her world.” (Alex)
It is not uncommon for surviving siblings to feel guilty because of angry remarks or feeling of resentment they may have had towards the child who died. They may, for example, resent all the attention focussed on that child before or after the death. Surviving children may also feel guilty about not behaving ‘better’ in some way, or that something they did caused harm to the child or may even have caused the death. A child may even feel guilty at being alive when the sibling is dead. Children need to know that even if they had angry thoughts or feelings about their brother or sister who died, these did NOT cause the death.
“My boys said, ‘Do you think we killed Molly; because, remember we split the bunks the day before? Did moving the furniture cause Molly to die?” (Jill)
“I felt jealous of him because he took most of my mum and dad’s attention away from me. And when he died, I thought maybe I had done it.”
Anger and ‘acting out’ is another common reaction among grieving children. Anger may take different directions and can be shown as anger at the person who died, at God for letting it happen or at others or themselves for not preventing the death. Sometimes you may be held responsible for what happened, and anger might be expressed towards you. A child may find release from the new and scary feelings of grief by acting out, by regressing or by being especially irritable. These behaviours, though worrisome to caring adults, are normal.
“I felt a lot of guilt and anger towards my mum. I blamed her for having a child that I got attached to.” (Melissa)
“My daughter would yell at her friends and storm off. I talked to her about anger and how I was angry, too. I told her it wasn’t her friend’s fault, it wasn’t mine or Daddy’s fault and it wasn’t fair to yell at her friend like that.” (Natalie C.)
Children, especially young children, are mostly concerned with their own needs and often show anger when they feel these needs might not be met. Children need to know that it is okay to show anger as long as it is not hurtful to themselves or others.
As with grieving adults, children’s bodies react when they experience grief. Physical complaints such as headaches, stomach aches or sore muscles are all known to appear in some grieving children. You may notice changes in your child’s sleeping and eating habits and he or she may experience bad dreams or nightmares.
“Our boys, aged 8 and 10, wanted to be with us and so we slept four in a bed for the first couple of weeks.” (Jill)
Shock and disbelief
Sometimes children may not believe that a death really happened and may act as though it had not, and some children may appear not to show any emotion at all. When your child does not immediately react with strong feelings, this can be confusing. You may find yourself concerned about the fact that your child does not cry. But this may be a normal shock reaction, also common among adults. What has happened has to be taken in, step by step, and this helps to prevent your child becoming emotionally overwhelmed. It is a necessary and helpful protection mechanism that helps us to cope with extreme situations.
“Tell them that whatever they feel at the time is okay.” (Jo)
Changes in relationships
Relationships with brothers, sisters and peers may become more difficult. There may be more conflict, competition, aggression or withdrawal within these relationships. You may also notice changes in the way your child relates to you. They may become more demanding, possessive, irritable, withdrawn or uncommunicative.
“If your child withdraws from you, they still need positive reinforcement about how you feel about them. Telling your child you love them and are there for them might seem obvious, but I recall a time that Natasha was surprised to hear she could tell me what she was feeling.” (Natalie C.)
This article was prepared using extracts from What about the Other Kids?1 The full text is available online or contact Red Nose Grief and Loss Services on 1300 308 307 for a printed version.
Last reviewed: 30/11/23
1. Bereaved Parents & SIDS and Kids. (2005). What About the Other Kids? A Booklet by and for Parents of Children whose Brother or Sister has Died (D. Same, Com., M. Bannan, A. Faulkner, J. Foong, S. Foong, J. Frisina, L. Green, R. Green, …& H. Wilson, Illus.). Malvern, Vic.: SIDS and Kids.