Children’s understanding

Primary school aged children

From the age of about 3 years children can understand the difference between being dead and being alive but until the age of 6 or 7 years many children do not understand that death is permanent and irreversible and may therefore expect the person to return at some time. Children from 6 or 7 years of age begin to grasp the concept that people who have died cannot return to life and that death is permanent and happens to everyone, including themselves. They can also start to fear the death of others who are important to them. Children of this age can feel that somehow what has happened was their fault and therefore blame themselves and feel guilty. As a result they may become particularly 'good' to compensate for what they believe they have done. Even when there is no expectation, they may take on the role of carer for a surviving adult or siblings. By trying to appear grown-up, they might take on inappropriate adult responsibilities.

Secondary school aged children

Children of this age will understand the full concept of death; that death is irreversible, is permanent and happens to all living things. Puberty is a time of great change and, for a young person, grief adds to this. Teenagers are striving to be independent and grown-up but the death of someone close creates vulnerability. They may begin to worry about their own death and that of others around them.

Their feelings of grief may be similar to those of adults but they are likely to have strong inhibitions about expressing them. This is partly to appear grown-up, and partly to avoid being different from friends.

Some young people become apathetic, depressed, and withdrawn and develop a 'what's the point' attitude to school. A hectic social life prevents time to think, and risk-taking behaviour or anti-social behaviour is not unusual. However, some children may do especially well.