Help & Support for parents and carers
This area is for parents and carers, but anyone is welcome to explore it. You will find advice on dealing with bereavement, tips for parents and carers and advice on how grief affects the different age groups.
Grief at different ages
Babies and young infants (under 2 years of age)
Even at this age a baby will be aware that someone is missing to whom they are attached. They will not understand what death means. They will experience the pain of the separation and have no language with which to express that loss.
There will be a gradual realisation that this absence is permanent and the person is never coming back. The child will experience this as an unnameable fear or dread and they will begin to feel unsafe which can result in them fearing for their own survival.
Adults can usually comfort the child if they are not too upset themselves but the parents’ emotions and those around them will affect even very young babies. The smell of a blanket or jumper of the person who has died will be familiar and comforting for the infant.
Minimising the disruptions and maintaining a familiar routine around the home can help. This is very difficult when the family is grieving as everyone will be affected to some extent and so the care of the younger child may well be disrupted. Loving environment will minimise the impact of the loss.
As the child grows up, it will be important to talk about the person who has died and share the memories within the family.
Infants (age 2-5)
At this age, a child realises that something profound has happened. They will not understand that death is final. They are used to watching cartoon characters miraculously be whole again after being crushed or blown up which can add to the confusion. They do gradually begin to realise that it means the dead person is not coming back and this threatens their safe and familiar world.
If the death is of someone very important such as a parent, the child will go through a grieving process similar to that of adults. If their development until this time has gone well, they will have a reasonably secure picture of their loved ones inside of them – a sort of ‘Mummy or Daddy’ inside their minds’ – and this will help with the separation.
If the loss is not of a close relative, they may be curious about what has happened but get on with everyday activities and absorb it as part of their play.
They may regress in behaviour to that of a younger child and could begin to be agitated or restless at night or be afraid to go to sleep. They can often ask questions, which to an adult may seem morbid but they have a natural curiosity and need answers. It is important to spend time with your child and provide a secure, loving environment and simple, honest answers to questions. They may ask the same thing many times and you may find yourself constantly having to repeat the answers. A regular routine, particularly around preparing for bed at night time is very important.
Young children can understand the concept of death, but do not appreciate its finality and may expect the dead person to reappear – “shall we dig granny up now?” They think in concrete terms and so will be confused by euphemisms for death such as “gone away” or “gone to sleep”. They may require repeated explanations of what has happened. As their thinking is very much centred on themselves, they may consider that something they did or said caused the death. They are prone to fantasise at this age and if not told what is happening may dream up something scarier than reality.
At five years of age most children realise that dead people are different from live people – they do not feel, they cannot hear, see, smell or speak and they do not need to eat or drink.
Children (Age 6-12)
Children at this age are beginning to develop a more full understanding of life and death and what that means. They become aware that everyone dies, including themselves. They may be more interested in the actual cause of death ‘Why suicide?’, ‘Why cancer?’ etc.
If good support is not in place, a child may withdraw and be unable to express feelings. They may appear ‘stuck’ and unable to grieve and may even need professional help especially if the important adults in their lives are grieving too. It is important for an adult to share their grief with a child but not to offload onto them. This could lead the child to feel that there is no space for their own grief, and it is also important not to say things such as ‘I know how you feel’ as no one does really know.
Children at this age are beginning make important relationships with people at school. The death of a person at home can make them feel unsafe and more dependant again. School can play an important part in helping the world to be a safe place with routine and structure, which is what children need and want.
By seven the majority of children accept that death is permanent and can happen to anyone. They are more able to express their thoughts and feelings but may conceal them and appear unaffected to protect the adults around them. They need opportunities to ask questions and to be given as much information as possible. They are likely to be very interested in the rituals surrounding death.
At this age children’s understanding of death almost matches that of an adult, although they find it difficult to grasp abstract concepts. An important factor is their deepening realisation of the fact that death happens to everyone, even themselves.
A young person may be alternating between being so busy living life that they rarely stop to think about life and death. A significant death can make a young person feel confused and isolated. They are developing ideas and beliefs in their own about life. Just as they are beginning to separate from the family they can then start to feel really insecure. This can draw them into:
- A very private existence
- More childlike behaviour patterns
- Being very matter of fact and detached
- Being worried about emotions overwhelming them
- Becoming very angry
Many of these are normal expressions of teenage behaviour. This can make it difficult to know when additional help is needed. Peer support can be particularly important to young people. If the young person is eating normally, sleeping, managing school and social life then it is probably safe to let the grieving process take its normal course. They will need even more than ever to have boundaries and limits maintained. It is important not to make assumptions about what the person may need; they may find it useful to talk to someone outside of the family who is not in danger of feeling too upset or overwhelmed.
Young people need to know that it is okay to:
- Cry and feel depressed. They’ve lost a great deal. If their feelings get too overwhelming, they should find an adult or a friend who they can share them with
- Copy some activities or interest of the dead person
- Retain their own life
- Live in the past for a while, it can help to keep alive the memory of the dead person
- Have fun and enjoy life and to laugh again
- Forgive themselves for the fights and arguments and nasty things they said to the dead parent or sibling
- Go on living
But it’s not okay to:
- Use drugs or alcohol to dull their senses
- Act out their frustration harming themselves or others
- Use sex just to get close to someone
- Drop things that once meant so much to them
- Signs that a young person may need extra help include:-
- Prolonged deterioration in relationships with family and friends
- Risk taking behaviour or self-harm; such as drugs and drink, fighting and unboundaried sex
- Lack of interest at school
- Signs of depression, sleeping difficulties and low self-esteem
How to cope
Bereavement is a distressing but normal experience.
There are often few opportunities to learn about grieving – ‘how it feels’, ‘what are the right things to do’, ‘what is normal’ – or how to come to terms with a death. In spite of this, most people find a way through, face the death and deal with their grief.
There is no right or wrong way to grieve and many people share similar thoughts and feelings. There are many feelings which take a while to get through and which cannot be hurried.
There is no ‘standard’ way of grieving. Cultures, families and individuals have their own beliefs and rituals. However, they all share similar experiences.
We most often grieve for someone that we have known for some time. However, it is clear that people who have had stillbirths or miscarriages, or who have lost very young babies, grieve in the same way and need the same sort of care and consideration.
As a bereaved parent/carer you might feel:
in the few hours or days following the death, you can feel stunned, as though you can’t believe it has actually happened.
After a few days the numbness usually wears off. You may feel anxious and agitated, searching for the person who has died. You want somehow to find them or a connection to them, even though you know you can’t. You may find it difficult to relax, concentrate or sleep properly. You may dream, see fleeting visions or hear the voice of the dead person.
You can feel very angry – towards others, who you feel added to the pain or distress, or who you feel did not prevent the death, which did not do enough, or even towards the person who has died because they have gone. This will feel very real to you.
You may find yourself going over all the things you would have liked to have said or done. You may wonder if you could have prevented the death, even though death is usually beyond anyone’s control.
Relieved: You may feel relieved if the loss has been after a painful or distressing illness. This is not callous-it is common and understandable, we do not like to see people we care about in pain or distress.
After the weeks of strong feelings, you may gradually become sad and withdrawn. You feel less agitated but experience more periods of feeling ‘down’ or depressed, which can last for some time. Some people need additional support and care during this time.
Other people may see you as spending a lot of time just sitting, doing nothing. In fact, you are thinking about the person who has died, maybe thinking about memories, some good and some less good and the loss of opportunities. Some people will choose to do this with the support of a counsellor or befriender. This is an essential part of grieving.
You are becoming whole again:
Although the sense of having lost a part of yourself never goes away entirely, after some time you can feel that you can manage the grief and begin to enjoy life again. As time passes, the intense pain of early bereavement fades, the sadness lifts and you start to think about other things and look towards a sense of future.
In our grief feelings of intimacy with a partner can be reduced or even lost. This is normal and as we work through our grief our feelings may return and we can learn to be intimate with others again. Above all, be gentle with yourself, you both deserve time for your grief.
What if I can’t come to terms with it?
You may have problems if you can’t grieve properly at the time of your loss because there is too much happening around you. Some people don’t appear to grieve at all and return quickly to their normal life but then, sometime later, may have unusual physical symptoms or feel depressed.
If you have had a stillbirth, miscarriage or abortion, other people may not understand why you feel so deeply about it. This can make you feel very alone and low.
You may start to grieve, but get stuck. The early sense of shock and disbelief goes on. Years may pass and still you find it hard to believe that someone has died.
You may find that you can’t think of anything else and focus on keeping everything the same as it was when the person was alive.
Occasionally, you may feel so low that you have thoughts of harming yourself and may even stop eating and drinking. This is a sign you need extra support.
- Look after yourself
- Do what you can, when you can and be gentle on yourself
- Remember, it will take time and things won’t change immediately
- Grief is painful and things can’t easily be “made better”
- Talk to children about the death using words they understand. Try not to use euphemisms such as “gone to sleep” “lost” or “gone to be with the angels”
- Allow time for questions when you feel able to respond to them
- Answer questions simply and honestly – don’t be afraid to say ‘I don’t know’
- Don’t be afraid to show your feelings to your children – it lets them know it’s OK to have feelings as well
- Try to find appropriate ways to keep your children involved and remembering including the planning and involvement in the funeral
- Keep talking about the person who has died
- Remember you are not alone
- Inform the school about your child’s loss and encourage your child to return to school as soon as possible after the death as this helps maintain a normal routine
- Trust your instinct as a parent and don’t be afraid to ask for support, there are organisations to help you – see our links page
How children grieve
Like adults, children need to grieve in a variety of ways but how a child copes with the death of someone close to them depends on many factors including:
- Their age, stage of development and understanding of death
- Their relationship with the person who has died
- The circumstances of the death
- How the whole family has reacted and been affected by the death
- The family culture and beliefs
- The most usual responses are:
- Asking many questions in order to understand their loss
- Searching for the person who has died
- Crying/expressing anxiety or being extra “clingy” with other family members
- Lack of concentration
- Refusing to go to school
- Regression to an earlier age, acting younger
- Role–playing the dead person and taking on their role, eg. taking on a caring role if the parent has died
- Denying the death – usually to protect the adults
- Anger and guilt
- Isolating themselves from friends
- Finding it easier to talk to their peers
- Overeating or loss of appetite
- Physical symptoms eg. tummy ache/headache
- Vivid dreams or nightmares
- Phobias about doctors and hospitals
- Difficulty sleeping
- Questioning their own identity
- School work may be affected by under-achieving or over-working
- Self-harm, although this is more common with teenagers rather than young children
- Some may adopt bullying behaviour as a protest against their painful emotions
It is normal for children to experience any or none of these reactions. However if you are concerned about your child in any way please contact us (link to contact us)
Winston’s Wishposted: 16/11/16
Winston’s Wish provide free and confidential advice and support to children
Provided support, information, education and advice about bereavement.
Child Bereavement UKposted: 16/11/16
This website contains information for bereaved families and the professionals who are supporting them
The CBN is a national multi professional group of individuals and organizations working with bereaved children and young people
Bereavement Advice Centreposted: 16/11/16
Advice and help with practical and financial issues after someone has died
Widowed & Youngposted: 16/11/16
This organization offers support to those who are widowed and young
The Compassionate Friendsposted: 16/11/16
The Compassionate Friends are an organization for bereaved parents and their families offering support after the death of a child