Ages and Stages

The way in which children may respond to the death of their brother or sister is influenced by many factors. These include the meaning of the relationship (protector, rival, ally, only sibling, playmate), your living child’s personality (sensitive, outgoing, highly anxious, resilient) and the age and developmental stage of your children. Remember, however, that not every child in a certain age group understands death in the same way or has the same feelings. You know your child best. The following gives an approximate guide as to what children of a particular age may experience.

Infants and toddlers

Very young children can be quite sensitive to changes in their emotional and physical environment. They may sense that you are reacting differently or are not able to provide them with the same care and attention as you usually do.

Possible behaviour

  • Infants and toddlers may fuss more
  • They may regress and begin to suck their thumb, wet the bed again, or become more clingy
  • Young children may want to be picked up and carried, rather than walk
  • They may also express confusion that their brother or sister is no longer present

What do I say? What do I do?

  • Your infant or toddler may need extra cuddles and extra time with either you or other trusted caregivers
  • Although this can be difficult, try to keep as consistent a routine as possible

Pre-schoolers

Children younger than five years of age usually do not understand that death is final. This may lead them to search for the sibling who has died, and to ask questions like: “When will my baby sister come back?”

Younger children think in very concrete terms at this age. It is best not to use replacement words that your child may take literally, such as saying that the person is ‘asleep’ or ‘gone on a long journey.’

Speaking of the child who has died as ‘lost’ may, for example, lead your surviving children to search for their sibling or to wonder why a search is not taking place. Talking about death as ‘a long sleep’ is also not helpful, as your child may then be scared of going to sleep. When these same terms are applied to living people (for example, “Daddy is asleep”), children may become fearful that they, too, have died.

“We used the words ‘gone’ and ‘box’ (instead of coffin), with an explanation, because we could not bear to say ‘dead’, ‘died’ or ‘coffin’ in the context of my son, Lewis.” (Kath)

‘Magical thinking’ plays a big role in children at this age. Some children may think that they somehow caused the death, particularly if they had been naughty or thought or said something nasty to their sibling.

“Hannah was 2 and- a- half years old when Samuel died at the age of 3 months. She was very young and had no idea about what had happened … We had put Samuel down for his afternoon sleep. He had been asleep for 2 hours and Paul went to get him up. I saw that Hannah and one of her little friends had drawn on the wall with Texta. She had never done that before. I just leant down and said to her “Hannah, you must not draw on the wall”. It was then that we heard Paul discover Samuel. We all just stopped still … stunned … frozen in time. I just knew…then bedlam. Two days later, Hannah came and took me by the hand. She walked me to the wall where the Texta had been. She said ‘Hannah draw on wall. Mummy cry. Daddy cry.’

“I said to Hannah ‘Yes, you did draw on the wall, but that is not why Mummy and Daddy are crying. We are crying because Samuel has died’. But Hannah continued to talk about her drawing on the wall for months. She couldn’t understand that her drawing on the wall did not cause Samuel to die.” (Jenny)

Younger children may also feel they can undo the death by good behaviour and that if they wish or pray really hard they can miraculously bring their brother or sister back to life.

Possible behaviour

  • Pre-schoolers have a matter-of-fact curiosity about death and can ask questions that you may find confronting

“Dean said, ‘If he came back today, and I opened his eyes, would he see me?’ ” (Sharon)

“When we went to see Jackson at the funeral parlour, we walked into the room and Mitchell ran over to Jackson, only to stop in his tracks and take a few steps back. We think he was expecting to see him alive.” (Toni and Richard)

  • Young children do not remain sad for long and may alternate rapidly between crying and playing

“Jarrod came to the funeral. He carried flowers behind my husband, who carried the casket. Jarrod cried briefly, but then was playing and laughing minutes later.” (Kylie)

  • Children’s behaviour may regress. Examples include bed-wetting, sleeping difficulties and/or clinging behaviour
  • Death and grief may become a part of play activities; for example, young children may play ‘funerals’ comfort their crying dolls or draw their sibling in ‘heaven’
  • Some children may be irritable and withdrawn and show signs of insecurity
  • Young children may feel bewildered and physically search for the sibling who has died. Remember that adults experience this, too

A two-year-old girl asked her mother where her little brother is now. The mother replied, “He is in my heart”, to which the two year old responded by pulling up her mother’s blouse, hoping to find her baby brother there.

What do I say? What do I do?

  • Explaining death to children of pre-school age should be simple, honest and factual. As hard as it may be, it can be helpful to use the word ‘dead’ and to tell your child that their brother or sister who has died will not return
  • Young children also find it hard to grasp that the body has stopped working. They still think that when you die you go on breathing, thinking and feeling. Questions such as: “Who will give the baby milk up in heaven?” are not unfamiliar. If you can explain that the baby or child who has died will not need to eat or breathe any more, your surviving child may feel less anxious about providing food and air

“We were talking about being hungry and Layla said: ‘I have a hungry tummy and Chloe has a hungry tummy.’ I explained to her that Chloe doesn’t have a hungry tummy because, when you die, your body stops working and you don’t need food or drink anymore.” (Lyndal)

  • Perhaps you could explain to your child that his or her brother or sister died because, for example, they were ‘very, very sick’, or for reasons that we don’t understand, and not as a result of anything your child may think he/she did
  • Young children may also need reassurance that they will not die because their sibling died, and that someone will be there to take care of them
  • Reassure your child that being sick and going to hospital does not mean people always die
  • Comforting, touching, being consistent and talking, perhaps repeatedly, about what happened can all be helpful

School-aged children

Children may experience a difficult transition period where they still want to see death as reversible but are beginning to see death as final.

However, they may believe that death happens only to other people.

Possible behaviour

  • Children may be curious about death and burial rituals and may ask detailed questions which are very difficult to answer
  • It is not unusual for the primary school-aged child to imagine death as a bogeyman or a ghost. They will sometimes play games of pretending to die
  • Like adults, anger over the death is a natural response in this age group. Sometimes, the anger is focused on certain people for ‘causing’ the death. These targets may be God, the doctors, nurses or anyone involved with their sibling’s death. They may even take out their anger on you or themselves for not preventing the death
  • You may find your children being less willing to express their feelings, preferring to keep their grief to themselves. As one parent commented:

“Just because she’s quiet doesn’t mean she’s always OK.”

“Dylan has experienced many different emotions, which are very hard for him to understand, and for us to explain to him that what he is feeling is normal.” (Toni and Richard)

  • Like some adults, children may take time to absorb the reality of what has happened and might not appear to be immediately affected by the death

“Holly said: ‘Now that you have more time, I can go horse-riding again.’ She didn’t understand that death is forever.” (Alex)

  • Children are quick to blame themselves

“Dean blamed himself. He was in the tent beside Jared. Dean said: ‘...but I was right next to him. I should’ve known.” (Sharon)

  • Children may sacrifice their personal needs and not ask questions that reflect their true concerns because they worry about their parents and want them to feel better
  • Your child may experience disturbed sleep or appetite

“Sometimes I have nightmares … but I don’t want to tell Mum or Dad because they are already upset.” (Tim)

  • School performance may be affected
  • Older children may be concerned about what their peers think and may be anxious about being seen as ‘different’

These are not uncommon or abnormal responses and are ways children work through their own grief.

What do I say? What do I do?

  • You will, as parents, need to be sensitive to your child’s level of understanding. Use simple language to explain honestly what has happened and be guided by your child’s ability to absorb this information
  • Answer questions and encourage the expression of a range of feelings. If a child asks a question that you find hard to answer, ask them what they think. This will allow you to have a clearer understanding of your child’s reflections on grief
  • Be available but also allow your child to have some time alone
  • Talking to children about grief and the feelings it evokes helps them learn that their experiences are normal and natural, and that feelings of sadness, anger and helplessness can be faced
  • It can be valuable to have all your children together when breaking bad news. The more outgoing children will ask the questions that the more reserved will not

Adolescents

Normal adolescence is a time of physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual and sexual changes. It can be a bewildering stage without the further upheaval of loss and the stress of grief. It is little wonder that so many grieving teenagers feel misunderstood and isolated.

Adolescents are usually able to reason and understand the abstract concept of death.

Like adults, they have a sense of the finality of death and can participate in traditional mourning practices.

At this stage in their lives, they often feel that they themselves are immortal and this can make death harder to accept.

Adolescents begin to reflect on justice and injustice, search for spirituality, and engage in philosophical talk with friends.

Possible behaviour

  • Some adolescents can ask searching questions about the death of their sibling and death in general. Others are more private and may talk little about the death
  • Some adolescents may want to deny death, to shut it out, as it is a reminder of his or her own mortality
  • Some young people may become depressed; others may become irritable, impulsive and engage in risk-taking behaviour
  • Anger is normal and ‘acting out’ may occur
  • Adolescents may experience intense and overwhelming emotions, but they may try to suppress their feelings because of the uncertainty of how their responses will be interpreted by others. As a result, the mourning process can be a very private one for adolescents and is likely to occur intermittently rather than continuously. Feelings may also be hidden from peers so as not to be singled out as different or abnormal
  • On the other hand, adolescents seem more likely to seek support from their peers than from their families. This is natural and normal in terms of their development. Encouraging your teenager to get involved in a peer support group may be helpful. Perhaps you could talk to a Red Nose Grief and Loss counsellor for some suggestions

What do I say? What do I do?

  • Let your adolescent know it is okay to express his or her grief in his or her own way. There is no set ‘style’ of grieving
  • Although you may feel helpless observing your child in grief, do not underestimate how much a hug can mean, even to your otherwise ‘grown-up’ teenager
  • It can be very helpful for teenagers to know how you are really feeling. Talk openly and share your feelings - even crying together can be therapeutic for everyone concerned
  • To show that you care, that you are at least trying to understand, it is important to focus on good communication, which means a lot of listening

Conversations can often be effective if adolescents don’t feel pinned down. Important conversations, for example, can take place in the car, doing chores or playing with pets. In this way, eye contact can be avoided by the adolescent and they may feel more in control of their emotions.

Most adolescents resent being pushed into counselling, even though they know it’s because their parents are worried about them. You, as a parent, may feel better equipped if you seek information and share your concerns with the counsellor and take this back to your family.

  • Recognise and respect the significance of anniversaries and special days. Hurt feelings might re-surface or intensify. Perhaps you could ask your teenager how he or she wishes to observe this time and if you can help in any way

This article was prepared using extracts from What about the Other Kids?1 The full text is available online or contact Red Nose Grief and Loss Services on 1300 308 307 for a printed version.


Last reviewed: 21/3/19