Many children are faced with the experience of the death of someone close to them whilst they are still young. For some, it is the death of a pet, a grandparent or possibly someone within their class in school, but for others it may be the death of someone in their immediate family, such as a sibling or a parent. Children can often have different responses and feelings to the death of someone close to them. Like adults they may feel or demonstrate a range of feelings that can include the following:
For many children, their initial response to the death of someone close to them may be of denial – “it does not feel real”, “it feels like a dream”, “it cannot be happening”, “it is not my parent who has died”. Denial and feeling numb can often be the body’s way of initially dealing with the experience, so that a person has time to assimilate their feelings and experience.
This may be the feeling that is most commonplace in discussions with children, when we talk about how they are feeling after bereavement.
Anger and ‘Acting Out’
Children may express feelings of anger about feeling abandoned, and about the parent not being there when they grow older and for special occasions such as weddings. They may feel angry towards the surviving parent especially if they are not told correct information or are excluded from important rituals such as the funerals and goodbyes. Sometimes children may feel angry as they worry life will never be the same and they will not be happy again.
Guilt, Shame and Self Reproach
Children, especially very young children, may worry that their behaviour has caused the person to die, e.g. that because they were angry, mummy died. Therefore, they may feel guilty for their behaviour or for subsequent feelings and emotions. They may perceive themselves as being ‘naughty’ or bad or having not done something to save their parent. Children need to have reassurance that they did not cause someone’s death.
Anxiety and Worry
As a result of their experience of having someone close to them dying, children may naturally show worry and anxiety that someone else close to them will die. They might worry about forgetting the person who died what they looked like or sounded like, so may feel that they need to re-tell the story or events over and over again or need reassurance that they will not forget. They may worry about their own mortality and that they too are going to die one day.