Even before they are old enough to know what death really means, children of all ages experience grief, though they may show it in ways that are hard for adults to understand.

From birth, children feel emotions just as strongly as adults do – perhaps more strongly, since they are too young to be aware of what is causing them. Through body language, new babies express their powerful feelings of distress, anxiety, rage, delight, and so on. But having no words to their emotion, and not knowing where it comes from, they simply exist in a world where, for the moment, everything is distress, inside and all around them.

Once we learn words to describe our feelings, it is easier to begin reasoning about them and dealing with them. But small children have no way of knowing what is permanent and what is not. And, unlike adults, they tend to be aware of only one emotion at a time. So they pass in and out of grief – if playing distracts them, they can wholeheartedly enjoy it for a while. But this doesn’t mean their grieving is over. When they finish playing, the sadness will come back again.

As children get older, their understanding grows and their needs gradually change. Each child is different, and there are many ways to grieve. There are many ways, too, for relatives, friends and neighbours to help a child who is grieving. The most important contribution an adult can make is simply to be aware, to pay attention, to listen and help the child feel they are not alone.