1 in 29 school age children in the UK have been bereaved of a parent or sibling. From 15 to 21 November, Children’s Grief Awareness Week is taking place to show solidarity with grieving children and young people to and raise awareness of their needs.
This year’s theme is Lost4Words, a theme that captures both what bereaved children and young people may be going through, as well as what those trying to support them may be feeling.
There are many people who may support a bereaved child or young person in a variety of capacities, from friends, family and neighbours to teachers, club leaders and healthcare professionals. You can read our advice and find where to get support for the young person below.
How might a bereaved child or young person act?
Children and young people have a limited ability to put their feelings and thoughts into words. This year’s grief awareness theme of Lost4Words aims to raise awareness of this in order to find ways of supporting children and young people when they may find it difficult to talk.
Children and young people may express their feelings with behaviours, rather than words. Their reactions will vary greatly as children absorb and process information in different ways depending upon their age.
The following behaviours are common and are likely to settle over time with reassurance and recognition of what has happened and how they are feeling. It is important to maintain normal routines and give clear, age-appropriate information when presented with the following behaviours or reactions. Children may:
- pick up on tension and distress from adults and mirror this in their own behaviour. Even babies can sense that something important is missing and may cry more than usual.
- appear not to react as they are unable to process what this means yet. Children under six do not understand that death is permanent and therefore may seem unfazed.
- ask lots of questions and repeat the same questions, for example: “When’s daddy coming back?” or “Where has he gone?”.
- appear fascinated with death and ask repeatedly about it. They may play games where the person dies or is still alive; these are normal ways of processing their understanding of death.
- feel anxious or insecure as their sense of safety and normality has been rocked. This may cause them to become clingy or revert to younger behaviours, such as temper tantrums, thumb-sucking and wetting the bed.
- feel angry at the person who has died, particularly if it was a sudden death, or angry at their family, themselves or the world in general.
- worry increasingly about other loved ones as they realise that death is permanent and that it could happen to anyone they love.
- feel responsible, for example that their naughty behaviour may have caused the death and that good behaviour can save others or even bring back their loved one.
- deny what has happened or how they are feeling and may become apathetic about activities and hobbies.
- take risks in order to gain a sense of control over what is happening to them.
How can I help a bereaved child or young person?
Like adults, every child is unique and will come to terms with a bereavement in their own way. There is no magic formula or simple solution, but there are lots of things you can do to support grieving children and young people with their loss.
In the early days, it is particularly important to provide extra care and concern to the child or young person. Create time and space for activities or just time to be with each other and listen to them if they want to talk.
You could try one of the following activities from Child Bereavement UK:
- When someone special dies booklet (age 7 and under)
- When someone special dies (age 7-11)
- When someone special dies (young people)
- My dad and me memory booklet
Try as much as possible to continue with normal routines so that the child or young person can gain a sense of safety from structure. Things like going to school and going to clubs will help the child realise that not everything in their world has changed.
Equally, maintaining normal standards, such as behaviour expectations, are vital at such an unsettled time. Children may show challenging behaviour as a way of expressing their fear and grief and your normal behaviour boundaries need to apply, while allowing for compassion. The child or young person needs to know that their behaviour is understandable but not acceptable.
As adults, we naturally want to protect children and young people, but they may have a much greater capacity to deal with harsh realities than we realise. Giving a child a sad truth may be better than protecting them with a confusing explanation that may cause them to create fantasies that could be more harmful.
Being truthful also applies to your own feelings; children need you to be a model and therefore showing your true feelings of grief will demonstrate that it is okay for them to share theirs too.
Use clear language
Children and young people need information given in words appropriate for their age as without this, they cannot start to make sense of what has happened. Although words like ‘dead’ and ‘died’ can seem harsh, they will lead to less confusion and complication than phrases like ‘passed away’, ‘lost’ or ‘gone to sleep’.
By using clear language and not withholding information, children will feel that they can trust their adults and are more likely to express their feelings and fears, as well as receive comfort and reassurance.
Help them express their feelings
Whether the child or young person is feeling angry, anxious, sad or hurt, it is important to acknowledge their feelings and reassure them that what they are feeling is okay.
The theme of Lost4Words as part of this year’s Children’s Grief Awareness Week acts as a reminder that talking is just one way of expressing and dealing with feelings. Sharing activities, such as games or going for a walk can take the pressure off and therefore become a good time for children to remember their loved one and share their feelings.
Sudden deaths can leave children feeling angry as they have had no chance to say goodbye or they may have regrets about things they have said or done. If they are showing anger, provide safe outlets for this, for example hitting cushions, undertaking vigorous physical activities, or going outside to shout loudly. It could also help to give children a ‘safe zone’ with familiar items and belongings where they can go to calm down.
Look after yourself
The first step to supporting a grieving child or young person is to get support for yourself. Getting help isn’t a sign of weakness. You can find support near you for children and young people here on Child Bereavement UK’s website. Support is also available from local children’s bereavement charity, Balloons. Find local support for adults here on the Cruse Bereavement Care website.
Hospiscare offers a fully supportive bereavement care service to the loved ones of those who have died in our care. Hospiscare also has a range of events and activities open to anyone who has been bereaved, such as the Light Up A Life services and Bereavement Support Walks.