It is estimated that there are around 26,000 school age children in Scotland who have been bereaved of a parent or sibling at some point in their childhood. In 2014, around 2,390 parents died in Scotland, leaving around 3,920 dependent children.

Caring for, and working with, children who have experienced the death of someone close to them can be daunting and challenging.

There are various organisations which can provide training and education for those who work with bereaved children. Search our resources page for more information. 

This page offers simple guidance on child development, their understanding of death and dying and practical aspects on interacting with children at this distressing time.

What do children understand about death and dying?

Children experience grief in similar intensities to adults. However, a child’s experience and expression of grief, and their understanding of death will vary depending upon their age and stage of development. They may also fluctuate in and out of their grief. 

Please note that the videos on this website deal with issues of death and bereavement and were created for healthcare professionals: caution is advised for viewers who are not healthcare professionals as some may find the themes upsetting.

A transcript of this video can be found here

Do young children grieve?

Children are never too young to grieve and that the way that they experience events around a death, particularly whether they are included, involved and listened to, can have a great impact on their bereavement journey. Research has demonstrated that early truthful conversations using simple language are very important for children and young people.

 

What do I need to know about each age group?

Babies and Toddlers (0-2 years)

  • Limited/ no understanding of death and dying
  • Experience of loss is separation
  • Will be aware that someone important is missing
  • May react physically and emotionally to the absence of a significant person - feeding and sleeping routines may be disrupted
  • There may be increased separation anxiety
  • Pick up on parental feelings of grief and changes in routine
  • May regress and start behaving as if a younger child
  • There may be an increase in tantrums

2-5 years

  • Death viewed as temporary and reversible – like sleep
  • Have very concrete/ literal thinking patterns
  • May think dead people have feelings and bodily functions
  • May be concerned about causal effects – that their thoughts, feelings, words or wishes led or contributed to the death

5-10 years

  • Gain appreciation that death is final/ irreversible
  • Can become fearful as a result of their increased understanding of death and dying
  • Develop understanding that death has a cause
  • Most 8 year olds have a fully developed concept of death and understand external causes

10 years - adolescence 

  • There is an understanding of the long term consequences of loss
  • Personal implications of death are being appreciated
  • Justice, injustice and fate may be issues
  • May be more comfortable talking to their peers rather than family members
  • May withdraw and spend more time alone
  • May demonstrate more anger and aggression 
  • Teenagers may seem more insecure and behave like younger children.

Communicating with children:

what to do before someone dies

  • Encourage parents/ guardians to include children in activities around the time of death, in an age appropriate and sensitive way.
  • Don’t assume children understand the implications of words and phrases that adults use, e.g. “cancer” or “keeping someone comfortable”.

How do you tell a child that someone has died?

 

  • It is best to tell them about the death as soon as possible, ideally by someone whom they know and trust.
  • Try to encourage parents/ guardians to be honest and tell children the whole truth. If someone has died in a particularly traumatic way it is still usually better for children to know the truth, rather than hearing it later, perhaps in the playground.
  • Use clear language e.g. “I am sorry but your daddy’s heart was poorly and has stopped working. It won’t start working again and so that means that he has died”.
  • Avoid euphemisms, e.g.

“Your daddy’s gone to sleep”, “Has been lost” or “Passed away”

  • Try to prepare children for what to expect, e.g.

“Would you like to go and see Mummy? She might look a bit different now she has died. Can you remember what she looked like when you last saw her? What do you think she might look like now?”

“Would you like to come and see Granny? There are lots and tubes and wires attached to her but you can still talk to her and touch her although she will feel a bit cold”.

Helping children through bereavement

Like adults, all children will deal with loss and grief in different ways.

  • Children often need reassurance and affirmation, if appropriate, that the person who has died loved them.
  • Children are very perceptive and it is important to be honest with them.
  • Use clear and unambiguous language.
  • Answer their questions, which may be repetitive.
  • Maintain a sense of normality and routine.
  • Encourage families to share their feelings with children. People can sometimes feel frightened to express emotion.
  • Pets may become very important.
  • Photographs and belongings of the person who has died can be very important to a child, and can be used as a talking point.

Downloadable poster - key messages

This downloadable educational poster, outlines the key messages about talking to children who are bereaved.

It is relevant to professionals across health, social care and other sectors.