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The death of a parent or sibling is one of the most traumatic and stressful events young children may experience. The information below attempts to provide some understanding and tips to help parents navigate the task of experiencing their own grief, doing their best for their grieving child/ren whilst establishing a new family life. Even if children are very young when their parent or sibling died, it is important not to underestimate their grief.


Given their emerging verbal capacity, young children’s grief is more often expressed through behaviour and bodily expressions opposed to complex language. Somatic grief reactions may include headaches, stomach aches, muscle tension, loss of appetite, insomnia, restlessness and fatigue. Children may have problems with falling asleep, waking during the night, being unable to sleep in their own beds and having nightmares.


The post-death family environment is important as bereaved children require their parent’s help to recover. They seek security and care from parents. Research shows that children like to see pictures and videos of the person who has died. They like to talk about them and will often keep them alive in their fantasy play. For them death ends a life and not a relationship, this continuing bond in relationship helps them to cope with the loss.


It is essential to establish security and predictability for children after a parent’s death. Keep the children’s routine as predictable and as normal as possible.


Parents have reported that they and their young child needed more physical contact after their loss, and that sleeping together, sitting closer and giving each other hugs filled both parents and children’s needs.


Children may feel alone and different, afraid that they or others may become ill or die, and worry about separation from their remaining parent. For example, they may scan their parents’ or siblings face for signs of illness. It is also important to explain that the person died from a serious illness and not a common everyday illness such as a cold. Children need to be reassured that the surviving caregivers are not going to die.


To help young children cope with death information is important. Children between the ages of 3-5 years have difficulty understanding the permanence of death. They need to be told that the loved one will not return. They may however, keep asking when the loved one will return. They believe that death is like sleeping and that the dead person will wake up.

Explain what ‘dead’ means, for example, `Mommy is dead, her body has stopped working, she can’t eat, talk or play anymore. She cannot come back. Phrases such as ‘passed away’ are too vague and confusing.


Children between the ages of 6-8 years begin to understand death as permanent but may think that only old people die. Children at this age are interested in death, how it will affect their lives and what will happen to the body. A simple explanation of death and the cause of death should be given, with the child being encouraged to ask questions, and to talk through their thoughts and fears. Expressions of anger towards the deceased or towards those perceived to have been unable to save the loved one can occur. They need reassurance about the future, that someone will be there to take care of them, and that the death was not their fault. Familiar family routines are comforting and necessary. Try to improve their self confidence at every opportunity. Show encouragement, support and loving praise wherever possible. Parents also described mirrored moods, where if they had had a bad day their child/children often had a bad day. Notifying the school will help teachers understand the child’s reaction and provide additional adult support.


Parents themselves however are dealing with their own emotional pain, which often includes lack of energy, lower stress tolerance, anger and anxiety. Where possible the remaining parent should try and take time-out so they have some space to deal with their own grief.



Information taken from:

  1. E. Bugge, P Darbyshire, E. G. Rolholt, K. T. Sulheim Haugstvedt & S Helseth (2014) Young Children’s Grief: Parents’ Understanding and Coping.
  2. Himebauch, R. M. Arnold and C. May (2008) Grief in Children and Developmental Concepts of Death, Journal of Palliative Medicine.

Notes from the workshop: Bereavement Counselling with Children by Kurt Madoerin



Tracy Thomson


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