Each child is unique in his or her understanding of death and response to grief. This understanding is largely influenced by the child’s developmental level and age, but tremendous overlap can exist among age groups because children move from one developmental level to another at very different rates.

The guide below can provide a useful guide for parents, families and professionals:

Infancy to 2 years

A young child looking out of a window

Understanding of death
  • Is not yet able to understand death.
  • Separation from mother causes changes.

Expressions of grief

  • Quietness, crankiness, decreased activity, poor sleep, and weight loss.

2-6 years

A child

Understanding of death
  • Death is like sleeping.
  • Dead person continues to live and function in some ways.
  • Death is temporary, not final.
  • Dead person can come back to life.
Expressions of grief
  • Asks many questions (How does she go to the bathroom? How does she eat?).
  • Problems in eating, sleeping, and bladder and bowel control.
  • Fear of abandonment.
  • Tantrums.
  • Magical thinking (Did I think something or do something that caused the death? Like when I said I hate you and I wish you would die?).

6-9 years

A child looking out to sea

Understanding of death
  • Death may be thought of as a person or spirit (skeleton, ghost, bogeyman).
  • Death is final and frightening.
  • Death happens to others, it won’t happen to ME.
Expressions of grief
  • Curious about death, asks specific questions.
  • May have exaggerated fears about school.
  • May have aggressive behaviors (especially boys).
  • Some concerns about imaginary illnesses.
  • May feel abandoned.

9 and older

2 children

Understanding of death
  • Everyone will die
  • Death is final and cannot be changed.
  • Even I will die.
Expressions of grief
  • Heightened emotions, guilt, anger, shame.
  • Increased anxiety over own death.
  • Mood swings.
  • Fear of rejection; not wanting to be different from peers.
  • Changes in eating habits.
  • Sleeping problems.
  • Regressive behaviors (loss of interest in outside activities).
  • Impulsive behaviours.
  • Feels guilty about being alive (especially related to death of a brother, sister, or peer).

If you would like to understand more about Children and Bereavement, then please contact our Bereavement Team and our Children’s Social Worker, Helen for support and guidance.