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Warning Signs Following a Death
Children are highly resilient, even though they may have been deeply affected by the death. Most children will recover in a short time.

However, other coexisting events occuring in a child's life may make them more vulnerable to experiening problems following a death. It the child has experienced a recent loss prior to the death such as a divorce, another death of someone who was close, or a move to a new neighborhood, he/she may feel particularly overwhelmed by the new loss.

Children who are having serious problems coping with loss may show one or more of these signs:

  • An extended period of depression in which the child loses interest in daily activities and events.
  • Inability to sleep, loss of appetite, prolonged fear of being alone.
  • Acting much younger for an extended period.
  • Excessive imitation of the dead person.
  • Repeated statements of wanting to join the dead person.
  • Withdrawal from friends.
  • Sharp drop in school performance or refusal to attend school.
These warning signs and the ones listed below indicate that professional help may be needed.

Warning Signs Following a Traumatic Loss
Children tend to be highly resilient, even though they may have been deeply impacted by the trauma or the losses. Most will recover in a short time following a traumatic experience. A small percentage will develop persistent problems or even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and need professional treatment.

As already mentioned, certain coexisting events may make a child more vulnerable to experiencing problems. If a child has experienced a recent loss prior to the trauma such as a divorce, a death of someone who was close, or a move to a new neighborhood, he/she may become overwhelmed by the trauma. In addition a traumatic event can reactivate the emotions associated with previous traumas, which can be overpowering for children.

If the following changes persist for longer than three months following the trauma, it an indication that the child or adolescent is having problems coping with the loss and it is time to seek professional help:

  • Behavior or academic problems at school.
  • Angry outbursts.
  • Withdrawal from usual social activities or play with other children.
  • Frequent nightmares or other sleep disturbances.
  • Physical problems such as nausea, headaches, weight gain or loss.
  • Intense anxiety or avoidance behavior that is triggered by reminders of the event.
  • Depression or a sense of hopelessness about life or the future.
  • Alcohol or drug use problems.
  • Dangerous risk taking behavior.
  • Continued worry about the event as a primary focus in life.
Professional Help
Parents who are concerned about their children should ask their pediatrician or family doctor to refer them to a counselor or mental health professional that can help. Child and adolescent psychiatrists, mental health professionals, counselors can provide a safe environment for children to talk about what happened, their feelings surrounding the events and help the child accept the death or trauma and assist the survivors in helping the child through the mourning process.

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Fast Fact # 8. Children and Grief. Updated November 1998. Available at: Site.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Fast Fact #36. Helping Children After a Disaster. Updated March 2000. Available at: Site.
National Institute of Mental Health. Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Violence and Disasters. Available at: Site.

Children are highly resilient, even though they may have been deeply affected by the loss or the death. Most children will recover on their own in a short time.

Kirsti A. Dyer, MD, MS
See the Emergency 911 Page for links to immediate resources
if you are feeling helpless, hopeless, overwhelmingly depressed, or suicidal.

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Last update Sept. 11, 2002