- Cancer Information
- Schools and teachers
- Cancer in the school community
- The bereaved school community
- How young people understand death
How young people understand death
Children and adolescents understand loss in different ways, depending on their age and maturity level. To find out more, consult your school counsellor or the hospital social worker.
Early primary students (4–7 years)
- may think death is temporary
- might realise that death means someone isn’t around anymore, but may not understand the cause of death
- sometimes believe their behaviour caused the death
- might wonder who will look after them or teach them
- might worry that cancer is contagious or that they will die too
- may be very open and ask confronting questions
Late primary students (7–12 years)
- understand death is permanent
- know some reasons why death happens (e.g. illness, old age)
- are less likely to blame themselves for the loss, but might blame someone else
- want to know the facts about death, including what happens after death
- are better able to articulate their feelings and act sympathetically
Secondary students (12–18 years)
- usually understand the facts of death
- might respond in a self-centred way to the loss
- may struggle with their own mortality
- may express feelings in positive ways (e.g. listening to music, playing sports, writing in a journal)
- usually want to spend more time with friends after a loss
- may express their distress through risk-taking behaviours (e.g. skipping classes, experimenting with drugs or alcohol, acting recklessly)
- need to know that support and counselling are available
- might find it especially helpful to participate in a private or public memorial service
How to support grieving children
- Understand that each child will react to loss in their own way.
- Do not underestimate the impact of a bereavement, even if a child is very young or does not seem sad. Their grief may be expressed through play or other behaviour.
- Realise that children often work through their feelings slowly, facing them in bearable doses.
- Explain the death in concrete terms. Avoid euphemisms such as “passed away”, “lost” or “gone to sleep”.
- Answer questions in an open, honest and age-appropriate way. Accept that children may need to ask the same questions many times.
- Allow children space to grieve – you do not need to “fix” their sorrow. It is natural for people to express sadness in various ways, just as they express other emotions.
- Maintain routines and boundaries. School can offer a reassuring sense of predictability
Podcast: Coping with Grief
Claire Tobin, Principal Medical Advisor, Department of Education and Training, VIC; Dr Antoinette Anazodo, Paediatric and Adolescent Oncologist, Sydney Children’s Hospital and Prince of Wales Hospital, Director of The Sydney Youth Cancer Service, and Conjoint Senior Researcher, University of New South Wales, NSW; Lisa Barrow, Clinical Nurse Educator, Children’s Cancer Centre, Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne, VIC; Margo Bulic, Psychosocial Support Worker, CanTeen, ACT; Amber Copeland, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Queensland; Donna Drew, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Paediatric Oncology/Palliative Care, Kids Cancer Centre, Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick, NSW; Allesha Fecondo, Education Consultant, Victorian Paediatric Rehabilitation Service, and Education Liaison, Ronald McDonald Learning Program, Ronald McDonald House Charities Australia, VIC; John Friedsam, General Manager of Divisions, CanTeen Australia, NSW; Pina Hutcheson, President, Catholic Primary Principals’ Association of WA; Cara Irvine, Year 8 Coordinator, Alfred Deakin High School, ACT; Andrew Long, Assistant Director, Policy and Research, Independent Schools Council of Australia, ACT; Dr Alistair Lum, Post-doctoral Research Fellow – Behavioural Sciences Unit, Sydney Children’s Hospital, University of New South Wales, NSW; Kristine Luszczynski, Learning Program Manager, Quality and Standards, Ronald McDonald House Charities Australia, NSW; Anita Neville, National Manager, Ronald McDonald Learning Program, Ronald McDonald House Charities Australia, VIC; NSW Department of Education, NSW; Mandy Roney, Consumer; Shannon Rush, Primary School Program Manager, Camp Quality, SA; Luke Wade, Education and Career Support Consultant, Redkite, QLD.
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