Childrens’ understanding and reaction to death will depend on their age and their developmental stage. The following are guides only as children will differ in their reactions and grasp of events for a range of reasons other than age alone.

Ages (0 – 2 years)

  • Infants do not understand the meaning of death
  • They may display anxiety when separated from a loved one
  • They may appear upset, subdued and uninterested in their surroundings

Ages 2 – 5 years

  • No understanding of the permanency of death
  • May search for the missing person
  • May feel responsible for the death in some way
  • May become apathetic and depressed
  • May regress to an earlier stage of development e.g. thumb sucking, bedwetting, tantrums or may become clingy
  • May develop fears of going to sleep
  • May worry that other loved ones may die

How you can help

– Continuity of normal routine e.g. mealtimes and bedtime

– Offer physical comfort

– Explain the death in clear, simple language, using words like “dead” and “died”

– Do not use terms like “gone to sleep” or “passed away”

– You may need to repeat the same information again and again

– Permit them to ask questions and be consistent in your answers

– Reassure them that they had nothing to do with the death and of the well-being of other family members

Ages 5 – 9 years

  • Beginning to realise the permanency of death, but their idea of life after death is still vague
  • May have concerns about how the deceased is feeling or ehat he/she is thinking in the grave
  • May have a lot of questions about aspects of the death e.g. how the person died, what they looked like, the funeral, heaven, coffins
  • The reaction of their peers is important, they may feel ‘different’ to them
  • Their peers may be awkward about the death and avoid contact
  • They may become the target of bullying

How you can help

– Encourage the child to talk and cry about the deceased if they wish to, otherwise respect their silence

– Answer questions and provide as much factual information about the death as possible

– Reassure them that thinking and feeling ceases after death

– Be vigilant in relation to bullying.

Ages 9 – 12 Years

  • Understand the finality and universality of death
  • Awareness of their own mortality and may worry about their own death
  • May display psychosomatic symptoms i.e. physical complaints like tummy aches
  • May wish to stay at home close to parents
  • May display anger.

How you can help

– Dispel fears about their own health or the health of other loved ones by offering reassurance

– Encourage them to go to school

– Allow them to express their anger, offering appropriate ways to do so


  • Fully understand the finality, universality and inevitability of death. Their experience of death is similar to adults
  • May have a range of feelings: guilt, regret, anger, loneliness etc. • Death adds to the already confused array of emotions experienced by adolescents
  • May appear to not care about the death
  • May seek support outside of the family.

How you can help

– Offer them time to listen

– Allow them to express their grief in their own way

– Be prepared for mood swings.

– Don’t feel left out if they seem to value their friends more than their parents If parents are grieving themselves, they may be emotionally unable to support their other children. In this instance, another supportive adult in the child’s life, e.g. other family members, friends, neighbours may need to offer emotional support. It should be remembered that for children with special educational needs, their understanding of what has happened will be in line with their developmental age.

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