Kids, facilitator and volunteer at Feel the Magic Family Day Camp

What to expect when children grieve

Understanding what to expect while your children are grieving is important so you can be better prepared to support them.

Children dealing with grief will experience a wide range of emotions and express themselves in a variety of ways. Children often process emotions differently to adults.

How Children Understand Death

The ability for children to understand death depends on their age and developmental level. From about ages 6 to 8 years old, children begin to understand that death is permanent and irreversible.

Prior to this, they may struggle to understand that death is permanent, or believe it is something that only happens to other people. Once your children understand the permanency of death, they may begin feeling anxious about themselves or other loved ones dying, or become preoccupied with health and safety.

Younger children may not be able to express these complex emotions verbally so they may instead react behaviourally. Although younger children may not understand death, they will still be aware of their loved one’s absence and may feel this loss keenly.

As children approach adolescence, they are usually developmentally capable of abstract thinking and can conceptualise death in a more adult manner. They can understand that death is universal, inevitable, and irreversible. They may start to ask questions about what happens after death. Older children have formed strong bonds with friends, so they may seek support from them instead of turning to their parents and caregivers.  

Feelings and Behaviours

Grieving children will experience a wide range of emotions, including:

  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Vulnerability
  • Sadness/Despair
  • Shock
  • Longing
  • Guilt
  • Anxiety
  • Loneliness

These feelings are uncomfortable and hard, but they are common amongst grieving children.

Let your child know that these feelings are normal and that they can talk to you when they’re struggling with their grief. Also be aware that your child may have sudden mood changes. They may feel good in the morning, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will feel good all day.

Younger children may not be able to vocalise their feelings and older children may not feel comfortable talking about them, so you should keep an eye out for these behaviours:

  • Crying
  • Social withdrawal
  • Restless hyperactivity
  • Absent-minded behaviours
  • Acting out
  • Avoidance

No matter how your children react to the death of a loved one, you should let them know that you understand, you’re not mad at them, and you’re always available to provide comfort.

If you are concerned that your child’s behaviour is putting them or others at risk, please reach out to accredited support services for advice.

Physical Reactions

Grief isn’t just an emotional reaction to death; it may also come with physical symptoms. These symptoms may be a manifestation of the anxiety and depression that often stems from loss. Some physical reactions to look out for are:

  • Tightness in chest
  • Hollowness/pit in stomach
  • Dry mouth
  • Shortness of breath
  • Oversensitivity to noise
  • Muscle weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Appetite Disturbances
  • Weight loss or gain

Your child may also experience sleep disturbances and may ask to sleep with you, even if this seems

Common Coping Mechanisms

Coping mechanisms are strategies people adopt to help them manage painful or difficult emotions. All people, including children, will react to the death of a loved one differently and adopt different coping mechanisms. Some common coping mechanisms in children include:

  • Asking many questions about the death
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Misbehaving with attention seeking or aggressive behaviours
  • Treasuring objects that belonged to the deceased
  • Avoiding reminders of the deceased

Older children may demonstrate different coping mechanisms, including:

  • Visiting places that remind them of the deceased
  • Favouring talking to adults and peers outside the family
  • Acting with bravado, as if they are unaffected
  • Hiding or repressing feelings
  • Taking on more responsibilities
  • Acting out with risk-taking behaviours

Coping mechanisms are healthy when they don’t put your child or others at risk, and if they’re not done to an obsessive level. It’s important to seek help for your child so they can develop healthy coping mechanisms that assist in the healing process instead of harming it.

Reaching Out for Help

At Feel the Magic, we are dedicated to helping grieving kids heal. We have virtual and face-to-face camps designed by psychologists and run by trained professionals to give kids and parents the tools they need to connect with their emotions and each other.

Our programs encourage healthy grieving and introduce families to a supportive community. For more information or to register your interest in our camps, please contact us.

If you need immediate help or wish to learn more about other grief organisations that can offer you support, we have created a list of other organisations that exist to support people’s mental wellbeing and grief. You can also join our grief community to connect with other families who have also experienced grief after the death of an immediate family member. 

Always remember that help is available for you and your children, you just need to ask for it.

Adult and children at Feel the Magic Camp Magic

Children’s understanding of death at different ages

Grasping the concept of death will vary for children of different ages and stages of development. 

Even though all children are unique and will respond to and understand death in their own unique way, children’s reactions to grief can depend on many factors including their developmental stage. 

It is also important to remember that children’s understanding of death will be developed over time, particularly as they navigate new experiences and are exposed to new concepts.  

Children under 5 years 

Children under the age of 5 do not understand the finality and permanency of death. They often think that death is reversible and that a loved one can come back. 

Whilst very young children have no understanding of the concept of death, they can still sense and react to changes in their environment and routine. They will experience feelings of loss and insecurity if a significant person is absent, which can manifest as increased crying or changes in their sleeping and feeding patterns in babies.  

Language to use  

Children under 5 years of age have a very literal understanding of concepts so it is important to use clear, honest, and simple language like “died”. When explaining death, it may be helpful to explain that death means a person’s body has stopped working, death happens to everyone at some point, and death can’t be reversed. Euphemisms such as “passed away” and “gone to sleep” may cause misunderstandings and confusion and should be avoided.  

Behaviour of young, bereaved children 

Toddlers and young children bereaved at this age may display increased irritability, withdrawal, clinginess and anxiety, disrupted sleep, changes in appetite, less interest in play, and they may regress in skills such as language or toilet training. They can be supported by keeping to normal routines and providing them with constant reassurance and love.  

Children aged 6 to 8 years 

Between the ages of 6 and 8, children gradually begin to develop an understanding that death is permanent and irreversible. 

Children’s imagination and ‘magical thinking’ at this age can mean that some children believe their thoughts or actions caused the death. This can lead to feelings of guilt. For example, “I didn’t brush my teeth and therefore mummy has died.”  

Give clear information 

It is important to give them clear information about the death and to help them understand that it’s not their fault, to avoid them filling in their knowledge gaps with incorrect assumptions.  

Thoughts and feelings 

As they become increasingly aware that death is an inevitable part of life that happens to all living things, they may become more anxious about their own, and others, health and safety. For example, they may demonstrate more separation anxiety than they exhibited prior to the bereavement. Children at this age will begin to think and feel strong emotions but they may not have the vocabulary to express themselves. It might be helpful to use books and other media to explain death and to help them understand the feelings they are experiencing.  

Children aged 9 to 12 years 

Children aged 9 to 12 usually understand the finality of death and that the person who died is not coming back. 

Awareness of the impact of the death 

Children at this age may also show increased interest in the biological and medical processes involved in death and dying. They are also more aware of the impact the death has on them, for example that their lost loved one won’t be there for important birthdays or milestones like moving to secondary school. 

By this age, children will have developed a vocabulary to understand their thoughts and feelings, however they might not want to share them.   

Provide reassurance 

Reassure your child that they are safe and try to keep to a normal routine and maintain normal boundaries around expected behaviour. You can also help them by giving them permission to talk about how they feel about the person who has died and any worries or concerns they might have. 

Teenagers and young adults 

Teenagers usually have an adult understanding of death and are much more aware of its finality and the impact of a loved one dying both now and in the long term. 

The meaning of life 

At this age, young people are starting to question the meaning of life and other philosophical concepts. For example, they might begin asking questions about what happens after death. Adolescence is a time of profound change, and it can also be difficult for teenagers to ask for support whilst trying to transition to adulthood. It is important to give them clear and honest information and ensure a trusted adult is their source of truth and clarity.  

Although they may have the developmental ability to understand the concept of death, this does not lessen the impact of grief and loss. The teenage grieving process is unique for every young person. 

Some teenagers react by withdrawing from others, whilst some might take on adult responsibilities and try to become the caregiver, and others might cope with the awareness of their own mortality through risk-taking behaviour. Grief might also manifest as difficulties concentrating and studying at school, or an increased need for control.  

Teenagers do not like to feel different from their peers and grieving as a young person can be extremely isolating. The support of peers with similar experiences can be enormously powerful and the bereavement programs offered by Feel the Magic help foster these peer relationships. 

It is also important to consider that children who have been bereaved at an earlier age may need to re-process their grief as they think about their future and fully understand the impact of life without the person who died, or experience milestones that trigger renewed grief. 

Grief Resources

Our Grief Resource Guide contains more information on supporting bereaved adolescents as they transition into adulthood.

Picture of a Feel the Magic family on the remembrance tree

12 Ways to Remember Your Loved One this Christmas

For many families in our community, Christmas and the holiday season can be a difficult time.

Memories may serve as a constant reminder of a loss, and some families may experience heightened stress and sadness.

Feelings of grief may be rekindled as children reminisce about previous memories or as they create new ones. 

But there are special ways in which you can remember a loved one during this time and share in connection time as a family.

This guide 12 ways to remember your loved one at Christmas may help you and your kids missing a loved one. Including some tips from our own community.

In the coming days, some people in our community will share how they will remember their loved this Christmas. Follow along on our socials.

Do you need help guiding your grieving kids through Christmas? Read our tips to prepare grieving kids for the holiday season.

Plus, self-care for parents is important during the holiday season when there may be added pressures. This guide may help you to check-in with yourself at this busy time.

You are not alone, our grief community is online and our resources are available to read and watch any time.

Remember a loved one

How to Prepare Your Grieving Kids for the Holiday Season

Whilst the holiday season is usually a time of joy and celebration, for many grieving kids and teens it can be a time of sadness and loneliness. 

The holiday season comes with high expectations, such as family commitments and large celebrations at home and school. Grieving children often experience these ‘hallmark’ moments differently to others, and this can cause difficult feelings and emotions. For those who have lost a loved one, the holiday season can also intensify feelings of grief and sadness. 

The first Christmas or holiday season without a loved one may also be particularly challenging for children and teenagers. Similarly, Christmas and holiday seasons later in bereavement can also be challenging as children move into different life stages or take on new roles in family celebrations. 

Below are some tips that may help support your grieving child during the festive season. 

1. Balance new and old traditions  

The holiday season often comes with established traditions and rituals. Some families may want to continue their existing traditions, whereas others may want to change them, just as their ‘normal’ has now changed. 

Remind your child that the holiday season does not need to be perfect or the same as last year. Explain to them that as families grow, traditions and rituals often change. Make sure they understand that there is no “right way” to celebrate the holidays and whatever you choose this year can always change next year. Include them in decision making and ask all family members to contribute their thoughts on keeping traditions and/or establishing new ones. 

2. Provide consistency amongst the chaos

Research shows that stable routines and consistency in the environment are important for supporting the psychological safety of bereaved children and young people. However, the holiday season is often a busy time, with guests staying over or activities at unusual times of the day. 

Where possible, maintain the child’s usual routines and structure. For example, if the child is staying at a family member’s house, consider bringing items from home such as their favourite toys or pillows. Similarly, if a child is staying up late watching festive movies, try to maintain the same bedtime routine/structure – just at a later time of the day. 

3. Set realistic expectations

Since everyone grieves differently, it is difficult to anticipate how your child may feel during the holiday period. Setting realistic expectations for how they might feel will normalise the fact that such a time may evoke powerful memories and feelings surrounding their lost loved one. 

Preparing your child that they are likely to experience grief reactions may help them understand that it is normal to feel sadness and grief, but it is also okay to feel happy too. Communicate to your child that they may need to take time to cry or express their feelings to someone they trust. Importantly, reassure them that they are not alone.  

4. Plan together

Letting your grieving child share what they would like to do is an opportunity to teach them the power of remembering. Planning with your child will give them a greater sense of control and may help ease anxiety leading up to this period. 

Your child may want to commemorate the holiday period with ongoing emotional connections with their lost loved one. Alternatively, your child may prefer to keep their memories to themselves and grieve privately, and that is okay too. 

There is no right or wrong way. When planning how you will spend the significant days, consider that it may be easier to leave someone else’s house than to ask people to leave yours. 

No two people will experience grief in the same way. You may find different family members may want to do different things during the holiday season. Being open and talking as a family can help to make plans that are sensitive to everyone’s wishes.  

5. Share holiday memories and stories

If possible, share holiday stories about the loved one that the child might not have heard before. For example, their favourite Christmas present from when they were little, or photos of their loved one at festive events. 

Research shows that talking with others who remember the deceased person is an important part of helping children and families maintain a connection with their loved one. Children and young people might also benefit from engaging in activities such as cooking their loved one’s favourite meal, or watching their favourite holiday movie, as another way to maintain this connection. 

6. Ask them how they would like to remember their loved during the holidays

Examples of ways to remember a loved one during the holidays include setting a place at the table or lighting a special candle. Your child may want to use a creative expression such as art, writing or music to remember their loved one. 

Follow us here and on socials for our soon-to-be-released guide for ideas and inspiration from our grief community about how to honour a loved one during the holiday season.

Plus, read our self-care tips for parents during the holiday season HERE.

Grieving during the holiday season can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation, however it’s important to remember that you are not alone. When you feel overwhelmed, you should practice self-care and reach out to access additional grief support services

Feel the Magic offer support to help support you and your child through the difficult times following the death of a loved one. Click here to read further information on supporting children and teens through grief, anniversaries and significant events. 

If you would like to join a support network of other families who understand what you’re currently experiencing, you can join our grief community

Have more questions about what to say to a child when a parent dies or how to support a child through their grieving process? Please submit an enquiry and we will contact you as soon as possible. 

References: 

Boerner, K., & Heckhausen, J. (2003). To have and have not: adaptive bereavement by transforming mental ties to the deceased. Death studies, 27(3), 199–226. 

Schwab, R. (2004). Acts of remembrance, cherished possessions, and living memorials. Generations, 28, 26–30. 

Family Day Camp

Self-care Tips for Parents During the Holiday Season

The holiday season can be a difficult time for anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one. Memories may serve as a constant reminder of the loss, and some families may experience heightened stress and sadness.  

Watching others celebrate can also be painful and overwhelming and contribute to feeling isolated and alone. Holiday decorations and advertisements can also be inescapable triggers. 

As a parent, it is important to prioritise your self-care to help you through the holiday season.  

Set realistic expectations of yourself 

Consider if you can still handle past responsibilities and expectations. For example, you may want to consider shopping online this year if you feel a need to avoid crowds or triggers at shopping centres. Being mindful of your own needs is important when planning for the holidays, planning alternatives, and communicating with others.  

Take one day at a time

Whether you find comfort in old holiday traditions or decide to start new ones, take this period one day at a time. Try not to overload yourself to get through the days faster or isolate yourself until the period is over. You might decide to take a social media break if you feel that it is impacting you during this period. 

Prioritise your health 

Make your mental and physical health a priority by taking some time for yourself. Try to find opportunities to do physical exercise and eat healthy meals. It may be helpful to set aside time every day to meditate, stretch, or go for a walk. It is also important to check in with your emotions and give yourself some forgiveness if you’re being too hard on yourself.  

Lean on someone 

Call or text a friend for support if you are struggling. It is always helpful to have someone to talk to when you are going through a tough time. A mental health helpline is also useful if you need support, but don’t know who to turn to.

Write in a journal or read a book 

Calm your mind or racing thoughts by journaling or reading a book. Writing down how you are feeling may give you a chance to clear your head and move through your day with fewer bottled-up feelings. Others might want to read a book to distract themselves from their difficult emotions, or they might want to read a book on grief and the holidays. Our Grief Resource Hub contains a list of suggested books and media.  

Know your warning signs and take breaks 

Whether or not you communicate your needs or boundaries to others in advance, there is a chance you may find your emotions rising out of nowhere. Take a break when you need to and plan to step away occasionally. Whilst taking time out, you may want to text a friend or practice a breathing exercise. We know that breathwork is a helpful way to alleviate anxiety, depression, and stress.  

Hand on Heart meditation exercise  

At Feel the Magic, we use a simple strategy called ‘Hand on Heart’, which is beneficial for adults and children alike. It works in three ways: 

(1) physical touch serves as a grounding technique to anchor you to your body and in the present moment, rather than ruminating about the past or worrying about the future; 

(2) deep breathing helps to regulate the body’s stress response and soothe any physiological arousal caused by the distress; and 

(3) counting helps you activate the “thinking mind” rather than the “emotional mind” and provides something tangible to focus on besides what triggered the distress.  

Hand on Heart instructions: 

  1. Place one or both hands on your chest, feeling the warmth of your hands on your body. Notice the rise and fall of your chest.  
  1. Close your eyes or look down. 
  1. Breath in deeply for a count of 3 and out for a count of 4. Repeat this 4-5 times.  
  1. Label what emotion you are feeling in this moment. 
  1. Measure your subjective level of distress out of 10. 

Allow yourself to grieve

It is important to allow yourself to feel joy, sadness, anger, or whatever you are feeling. Every family member has their own unique experience of grief and no one way is right or wrong. Give yourself permission to feel your emotions as they are. Remember that experiencing joy and laughter during a time of grief does not mean you have forgotten your loved one.  

The holiday season might be a tough period for your family. In Australia there are a range of resources and support available for both you and your child. 

  • Feel the Magic provide grief education programs and camps for children aged 7 to 17 who have experienced the death of a parent, guardian, or sibling. 
  • Click here to access Feel the Magic’s Grief Resource Hub which contains information to help you through a range of challenges. 
  • When someone dies, it can be hard to know who you’re supposed to tell. Click here to be directed to Services Australia. 
  • Read about how to cope financially after losing your partner. If you need financial support, click here to be directed to Services Australia
  • Talk with your doctor or local community health centre if you or your child require professional support or counselling services. 
  • Kids Helpline is Australia’s only free, confidential 24/7 online and phone counselling service for young people aged 5 to 25. 
  • Beyond Blue provides confidential counselling services. 
  • Griefline provides telephone and online counselling services. 
  • Headspace supports young people (12 to 25 years) who are going through a difficult time. 
  • Lifeline is a 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention service. 
  • Solace provides grief support for those grieving the death of their partner. 
  • Postvention Australia and StandBy support people bereaved by suicide. 

Addressing fears as a parent of a grieving child

When a child experiences the death of a loved one, various fears may arise throughout their grief journey.

Often a parent or caregiver of bereaved children will also experience fears regarding their child’s grief journey. Many common fears are experienced amongst parents of bereaved children, including the fear that your child will feel isolated following the death of a loved one.

As a family tries to cope with a significant loss, the dynamics of the family can change and it can be an unsettling time for children. This period may manifest in certain behaviours, such as withdrawal, and certain feelings, such as isolation.

Changes that can stir difficult feelings and emotions

A death of parent may lead to other changes such as moving house, changing schools, or facing financial challenges. These changes, along with the death itself, stir difficult feelings and emotions for children to manage. Therefore, it is important to ensure that your child has access to support, specifically for their needs and to maintain as much normality in their life.

School refusal

The fear of your child’s isolation is often extended to their experience at school. Following a death, it is common for children to fear abandonment or being alone, and this is often expressed in everyday events such as school refusal.

Transfer of fear to parents

Bereaved children’s fears are often transferred onto their parents. When your child expresses certain fears, it is best not to dismiss their fears but rather try not to let their fears become yours. It is helpful to reassure them that everything will be okay and ensure that there’s structure and consistency in their lives.

The fear of not being able to cope with both your own grief and your child’s grief it a common fear amongst parents. It is undeniable that trying to cope with your own significant loss is extremely challenging, although simultaneously trying to help your child navigate his or her own grief may seem incomprehensible. Hence, this is a common fear for parents and can often manifest into questioning whether you are doing a “good enough” job or dealing with it in the “right way”.

The key to managing this fear is to avoid suppressing your grief emotions and openly expressing how you feel. Authentically showing your grief to your child will not make things worse. In fact, you may encourage your child to also display their grief and it may draw you closer to each other.

Lean on a support person

However, it is important to also lean on a support person or counsellor before sharing your experience with your child. This is especially important if your grief emotions become heightened and overwhelming and you may not feel you are equipped or able to assume full responsibility for your child’s grief. Be prepared that neither of your grief journeys will be smooth sailing, although by providing your child with love and compassion, you will allow them to navigate their grief feeling safe and reassured. Remember, in order to take care of your child, you need to take care of yourself.

Grief is a process over time

Another major fear often experienced by parents is that their child’s state of grief will never get better.

Grief is a process that occurs over time and your child will feel a wide range of emotions after a major loss. The key point is to give your child time to heal from his or her loss. Whilst it is difficult to witness your child grieve and endure many challenging feelings, providing them with understanding and patience during this difficult time will help them heal. Pressuring your child to accept the death will most certainly not speed up their grieving process.

Even if your child is experiencing denial for a longer period than you expected, remember that they will accept the death when they are ready to. It is also important to give your child permission and the opportunity to let out their emotions. Despite what may seem to be a regression following a loss, remember that your child’s grief is a process that ebbs and flows over time. Demonstrating patience and understanding is key to supporting your child’s grief journey.