How children react to sudden bereavement
Being bereaved by any cause is always sad and can be difficult to come to terms with but when someone dies suddenly or too soon, it can be particularly challenging. Sudden deaths are often violent. Victims may suffer horrific injuries at the scene, or die later in hospital from their injuries.
Sometimes, a surviving child may have witnessed family members dying, either at the scene or in hospital. A child may themselves have serious injuries that will last a lifetime, such as brain injury or spinal injury, or have a surviving parent or sibling who has serious injuries.
Sometimes, a child’s entire family is wiped out and they are the sole survivor, meaning they are grieving and also facing the very difficult challenge of adjusting to a new life in a new home with new adult carers.
A sudden bereavement is very challenging for children and young people and can have a major impact on how they view the world, and shatter assumptions that they hold.
Common reactions to grief after a sudden death
Children will experience many different feelings, thoughts and behaviours after a sudden death. They may have different feelings at different times, or they may have different feelings at the same time.
It’s important to help children understand that it’s OK to grieve in different ways at different times, and to reassure them that over time they will start to feel less sad.
At different times they may cry, get angry, be quiet, be noisy, talk about the person who died, not talk about them, and play or behave as though nothing had happened. Experts sometimes refer to this as ‘puddle jumping’ – the expression refers to the way in which children can dip in and out of their grief; they may appear happy one hour, and sad the next.
As children find ways to cope with their grief and start to adjust to their loss, they will continue to experience different feelings, thoughts and behaviours at different times.
Children may need encouragement to talk about their feelings and emotions .
Encouraging children to talk about their feelings after a sudden death
The following is a list of some of the common feelings expressed by bereaved children, and suggestions for how to offer support and reassurance:
- I want to cry – Crying is a normal part of the grieving process. You can encourage children to express their emotions, instead of copying the behaviour of a parent or carer, who is ‘putting on a brave face’.
- I’m really angry – Help children to channel their anger into behaviour that does not harm themselves or other people.
- It was my fault – It is vitally important to tell children they are not to blame for a death. Many children believe their thoughts or behaviour are to blame for a death, or that something that happened (e.g. a road crash) is their fault because they were not there to prevent it .
- I feel alone – Children often feel isolated after a bereavement. They can be excluded or even teased by other children because someone has died. They can also feel lonely if they do not know other children who have lost a loved one.
- I just don’t want to do anything anymore – It’s common to have feelings of despondency and lack of motivation after a bereavement. Encouraging children to take up a new activity or hobby can help them to feel normal again.
- I can’t get it out of my head – It’s common for children to experience difficult memories and thoughts about a sudden death, whether or not they witnessed the event. Encouraging children to write down or draw their experiences can help them to make sense of their feelings.
- Are other people I know going to die? – Children may be excessively worried about the health of surviving relatives and friends, and may need reassurance about other potential dangers.
It is important to give children the opportunity to openly discuss their feelings at school – they may be more willing to talk to a trusted adult from outside their family .
Things other people say
Children may hear some insensitive sayings from well-meaning friends or adults, such as ‘you’re the man of the house now’ or ‘you’re young, you’ll get over it’.
Children may act like ‘little adults’ following a death, but they should not be encouraged to take on the responsibilities of the person who has died.
Bereaved children may exhibit a number of behavioural changes, some of which may affect their performance in school and may be visible to their teachers or other staff .
They may have issues with concentration, which may be caused or exacerbated by sleep problems. They may lose interest in their work, or become aggressive, or disruptive in class, or withdrawn at any time. Behavioural changes can have a major impact on a child’s academic achievement.
Sometimes after a bereavement, children show a regression in behaviour; for example they may start bedwetting or have issues with attachment, especially if a parent or carer has died.
Behavioural changes can happen months or even years after a bereavement, but still be connected to the bereavement. If a child’s performance or behaviour is out of character, consider that it may be due to the bereavement. Grief takes a long time and it is your job to be supportive, not demanding.
Changes to feelings and behaviour can be challenging and upsetting for a bereaved child and their carers; however, with the correct care and support, most children make a good recovery after a bereavement and go on to lead a happy and fulfilling life.
See Mental health conditions that may require expert treatment for more information.
There are also many Useful organisations which can offer information, advice and support.
 Cruse. 2019. Childrens’ understanding of death. [Online]. [Accessed on 17/06/2019]. Available from: https://www.cruse.org.uk/get-help/for-parents/childrens-understanding-of-death
 Osterweis, M. and Solomon, F. 1984. Institute of Medicine (US) Committee for the Study of Health Consequences of the Stress of Bereavement. Washington DC: National Academies Press (US).
 Royal College of Psychiatrists. 2019. Traumatic stress in children: for parents and carers. [Online]. [Accessed 17/06/2019]. Available from: https://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/mental-health/parents-and-young-people/information-for-parents-and-carers/traumatic-stress-in-children-for-parents-and-carers
 Marie Curie. 2019. How grief may affect children. [Online]. [Accessed on 17/06/2019]. Available from: https://www.mariecurie.org.uk/help/support/bereaved-family-friends/supporting-grieving-child/grief-affect-child