Kids Grieve Too

Children are always affected by a death in the family. However, because they cannot understand or talk about death in the same way as an adult, they will sometimes appear to deny it or seem unconcerned. They might misbehave, have nightmares, and revert to bedwetting or other habits which they have previously outgrown. They may become ‘clingy’, withdrawn or even laugh without cause.

The youngest ones cannot tell of their fears and find explanations hard to understand. But whatever their age, it is important they be told the truth as simply as possible. Straightforward and truthful explanations are best such as “Our baby died from something called SIDS. We do not know what causes it but it will not happen to you or to Mummy or Daddy”.

“Just being honest with the kids mattered, involving them, without being too pushy.”

“Charlotte (aged 5) asked questions like ‘Is Bethany coming back?’ ‘No. She’s dead. She is never coming back.’ That’s my way. Someone of a more religious faith might not put it that way. I am a pretty straight down the line bloke who doesn’t bullshit that much. I found honesty to be the best way. That was the same actually in hospital. I don’t have a religious bone in my body but the chaplain lady, she came around and said ‘Do you mind if I offer a prayer for Bethany?’ as simple as that. But then I said to her ‘Who am I to say that Bethany would not have been religious, she may have been, or she may have been a complete atheist, whatever. And it is not my right to tell her to be religious or not. She can be anything she wants so offer her a prayer and if that’s taken up somewhere else, so be it.’ It’s not my decision. She could have been whatever she wanted to be.”

Children need constant reassurance of their parents’ love and affection. However this can be extremely difficult for parents, especially in the days immediately following the death. Some parents may have difficulty providing such reassurance while their own grief is so acute. Other family members can be asked to fill in here.

Children also need reassurance that neither they nor anyone else was responsible for the death and they will not die in the same way. Later, as children grow and their understanding develops, they will have further questions and may want to talk about why their sibling died.

All children benefit from being allowed to express their feelings. Older children may need encouragement to discuss their worries openly. School age children can benefit from being asked how they would like their school friends to be told. For example, children may want to tell their friends themselves, or they may prefer a teacher to do this for them. This allows them to be part of the decision making.

This article was prepared using extracts from Always Your Child1 and Your Child has Died: Some Answers To Your Questions.2 The full texts are available online or contact Red Nose Grief and Loss Services on 1300 308 307 for a printed version.

Last reviewed: 22/7/24