Features of grief in children after trauma

Common features of grief in children after a tragedy or traumatic event

Grief is exacerbated in times of turmoil

Experiencing a loss is always an incredibly difficult time in anyone’s life. When it is experienced as part of a turbulent or troubled time in the region, country or the world, such as was experienced during the Covid pandemic, this is exacerbated.  People may not be given a chance to see their loved ones and therefore are unable to say goodbye. Parents may be dealing not only with their own grief along with the impact of the disaster, while caring for their grieving children. Children may have lost both parents and are left orphaned often with no support structures in place. These children not only suffer the loss of material provision, but also lose important nurturers, role models and family bonds. All of this can lead to complicated grieving patterns and/or delayed grief in both the surviving parent and any children.

Sadly, we live in a country where trauma and tragedies are common occurrences. After hearing about or experiencing any tragic or catastrophic event children tend to be upset and unsettled. Children who may have been directly affected by the event and who are grieving, whether it be a primary loss from the death of a loved one or even secondary losses, may show stronger grief reactions than normal.

Grief responses

Grief responses that may manifest at this time will include the most common grief reactions, but these may be exacerbated and include the following:

  • Becoming more fearful in general, especially about their own health or that of the people close to them.

  • Sleeping difficulties and possible nightmares and they may want to sleep in bed with a parent.

  • Changes in appetite.

  • Becoming more emotional such as increased anger, sadness or irritability.

  • Excessively asking questions about the death, even re-enacting the event or inventing games about dying.

  • Being more clingy and constantly worrying about their loved one when they are apart.

  • Regression in behaviour such as bed wetting or thumb sucking.

  • Difficulties concentrating.

  • Decline in school performance.

  • Irrational beliefs (magical thinking) such as believing they may have caused the death.

Recognising when a child needs help with their grief

How can I tell if a child needs help with their grief?

There are many theories and models of grief that attempt to explain how a person may grieve. We know that grief is an ongoing and evolving experience and in children grief does not always follow a linear pattern of working through stages and tasks. It may therefore, at times be difficult to recognise whether a child is at risk for complicated grief and in need of professional help.

Warning signs (or red flags) that might indicate a child could benefit from professional help include:

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