Unfortunately, many children will experience bereavement, through the death of a parent or grandparent, sibling or friend. Children can also feel deep grief on the death of a much-loved pet.
The Impact of Bereavement on Children
Children may experience similar feelings to an adult but can show their grief differently to adults and adolescents, so wrong assumptions can easily be made. They may, for example, only be sad for short periods of time. Penny, age 5, might very naturally tell you in one breath “mummy died”, and in the same breath, “Have you seen my new dolly?” This is more about their developmental stage and ability to process difficult and confusing feelings than about not caring.
Many children are resilient and just need loving support from family and other trusted adults to help process the loss of a significant person in their life. But it is still important to understand the impact a death can have on a child’s life – especially the loss of a parent or sibling when other family members are also grieving.
Young children – toddlers to school age – may still expect the dead person to return and can believe their behaviour caused the death. They may react by reverting to be a younger child (bed wetting, thumb sucking) and become fearful that those closest to them will also leave them.
Primary age children – 5-10-year olds – will probably understand death as permanent but ask a lot of questions about how the dead person is ‘living’ now. They may not be able to express their feelings but can be anxious and withdrawn or behave differently, such as showing off or getting angry because they have still to develop the emotional vocabulary.
How to Support a Bereaved Child
People are often anxious or reluctant to talk about death and dying with children. However, the best approach is usually to include them in the conversation and give them information. If you are a family member, try to give them the choice to be involved in the preparations when someone close has died. If you are supporting a child, here are the key things you can do to help them at this difficult time;
- Tell them about the death as soon as possible and in clear language they can understand. Use the actual words – Grandma ‘died’ – not passed away and definitely not ‘fell asleep’ or s/he may become afraid to go to sleep!
- Listening is the single most important action you can do. Listening without interruption. Listening without trying to make everything better. Listening without being shocked! Listening at the most inconvenient times!
- Be prepared to answer some difficult questions – “Was it my fault that granny died? I was rude to her last week when she asked me to eat my cabbage!” Give plenty of reassurance and affection whilst keeping routines normal. Anyone can be asked a difficult question by a child so if you are part of a church community be prepared for the questions and involve the child’s family in providing an answer!
- Talk about the person who died often, “Granny would have liked this TV programme. It’s got her favourite actor in it!” If you are a church member, seek advice from a parent but it is best to talk about the person, especially if you were a friend of the person and have some happy memories. Perhaps you can suggest that, under supervision, they light a candle for their special person.
- Always give a child the choice to attend the funeral and change their mind if they want to. Explaining what a funeral is and what happens with easy and short bits of information will help them make that decision. If they want to be involved, an easy thing they can do is write a special message to their loved one to be put in the coffin. They could also help to choose the person’s favourite flowers. If you are a church member, be supportive of any decision the child might make, even if it was not to attend the funeral.
A short film has been produced especially for children by the Belfast Trust. It’s all about saying goodbye when someone close has died.
Support after the funeral
A bereaved child may need support from different people at different times, including people outside the family. This includes schools and from faith leaders. Helping them to grieve, being kind and understanding, listening and patiently answering difficult questions can make all the difference to them coping with the grief into their teens and adulthood.
Bereavement support is available for young children from specialist organisations nationally and locally – AtaLoss.org can signpost you to appropriate support. However, with support and understanding from everyone in a child’s life, most will not need it.
Useful reading material to share with bereaved children
Tough Stuff Journal- Someone Has Died Pete English, ListeningPeople Project Leader for AtaLoss.org, has produced a resource for children from the age of 8 up to 14 years. It is interactive and in free form, designed to be worked through with a trusted adult to help them process difficult feelings and develop strategies to cope. To purchase, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
What Does Dead Mean? Caroline Jay & Jenni Thomas. A book that explains death and dying to young children.
The Invisible String Patrice Karst. A story about death and dying for children that explains how we are connected to the people we love.
Places to go for help and advice if you are supporting a bereaved child
Child Bereavement UK offers advice about supporting children. You can view their short guidance film on supporting bereaved children. The Child Bereavement UK Helpline provides confidential support, information and guidance to families and professionals.
CALL 0800 02 888 40
Winstons Wish provides support for children who have lost a parent or sibling, including a helpline.
Childline on 0800 11 11 for 24-hour confidential support to children and young people up to the 19th birthday.