How to help your child cope with bereavement
A child experiences bereavement and grief differently to adults. Their responses vary according to age, development stage, and personality factors.
For adults, grief is rather like a vast lake of emotions and sadness, but for children this ‘lake’ is experienced in waves. At times a child may seem overwhelmed by sadness and at other times their attention may be focused elsewhere on everyday things like playing. According to children’s bereavement charity Winston’s Wish, this does not mean they care any less about what has happened, it is just their way of coping.
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How do children understand death?
A child’s understanding of death goes through several stages before they begin to realise that it is the end of physical life.
A child under five or six years old may not understand that death is permanent. Older children will begin to understand the meaning of ‘forever’ but, as Winston’s Wish explains, they may ‘feel that they can in some way reverse what has happened (“Grandad will come back if I’m very good and eat my broccoli”).’
How children show grief
Every child, regardless of their age, will have a unique and very personal reaction to grief. You may be concerned that your child is not responding the way they should but it is important to remember that grief is a deeply complex. As Winston’s Wish explains, ‘Grief feels chaotic. Grief follows no rules.’
Consultant clinical child psychologist Dr. Carol Burniston says, “We recognise that adults experience shock, denial, anger, sadness and adjustment in response to bereavement and children appear to experience these things also, just with a different behavioural manifestation.”
How can you support a bereaved child?
- Be there for them – during this time they may become very unsettled and anxious. They may be clingy and insecure. Share your feelings with them, as this will help them to understand they are not alone in their grief.
- Share anecdotes about the person who has gone – they can be funny or sad – but by talking about the person you will help your child come to terms with their loss.
- Ask them to tell you when they feel sad or need a hug.
- Although it can feel like the most unsettling time, keep your child’s routines as normal as possible to avoid extra distress. Just bear in mind that they may need some extra support with their routine, such as more hugs when you drop them at school.
- Encourage older children to see their friends, as it may help them feel normal and it can be good for them to get some support from people who aren’t just in their immediate family.
- Don’t force a child to describe their feelings if they don’t want to.
- Do answer your child’s questions honestly and simply.
- Make a memory box or book with things which remind the child of the person who has died and the times spent together. Photos, keepsakes, perfume, for example, can all help a child cope with their loss.
Parents' advice to help children cope with grief and loss
By the age of 16 the majority (54%) of children experience the death of a family member, and 22% of kids have lost a pet, friend or family member by the age of six, according to Lessons and Life and Loss research from Legal and General insurance.
- Most parents say six is the perfect age to discuss death.
- 4 out of 5 parents say that the death of a pet helped their child grieve the loss of family or friends.
- Bereavement in fiction helps children understand death in real life: 1 in 5 parents said that the deaths of Dumbledore and Dobby in the Harry Potter series helped cope with loss in their own life. (Look through our recommendations of books about difficult subjects to find fictional stories to introduce kids to complicated life events.)
Watch the Lessons and Life and Loss research video for practical tips from Child Bereavement UK Deputy Director of Bereavement and Education Katie Koehler.
Sudden is a charitable service providing help from day one onwards to people bereaved by an unexpected and sudden death.
The Ruth Strauss Foundation provides guidance to parents to support them to have open and honest conversations with their children surrounding grief, death and dying.
The Barnardo’s Education Community website offers resources for teachers to help children cope with bereavement.
Deferred grieving: helping your child cope with a coronavirus loss
Tragically, an estimated 10,450 children and young people were bereaved of a parent, grandparent or caregiver due to Covid-19 in England and Wales between March 2020 and April 2021, on top of the estimated 41,000 children and young people who are bereaved of a parent every year in the UK.
The pandemic has had a huge impact, cutting children off from their support networks and making grieving more complicated than it ever has been. “Many children and young people have bottled up their grief, because they simply can’t deal with the painful feelings and emotions while also living through a pandemic,” says Winston’s Wish practitioner Di Stubbs. “However, while you might be able to postpone the intense feelings of grief, you cannot permanently avoid them.”
Children who are struggling with their grief might not know how to explain it to an adult, but you might notice they are anxious or angry, they struggle to concentrate and experience physical symptoms like unexplained pains, headaches or stomach aches. Help them by:
- Acknowledging what has happened and offering simple and clear explanations
- Talking to them about what may happen next
- Offering them reassurance about the future
- Sharing your own emotions and helping them to explore and express their feelings and thoughts
- Finding ways to remember the life of the person they've lost
- Including them in the process of saying goodbye
"If someone close to your child contracts coronavirus and is seriously ill, you shouldn’t hide the fact that they might not recover," explains Lianna Champ, who has over 40 years’ experience in grief counselling and funeral care and is author of How to Grieve Like A Champ. "Introduce the idea of saying all the important things to each other: explain that we can’t always choose how or when we die, but we can make sure that we all know how much we mean to each other."
If you are organising a funeral or remembrance service, try to include bereaved children in the process.
"We often exclude children to protect them, but we shouldn’t be afraid to involve them in the funeral process if they ask," says Lianna. "If they do, let them in. The opportunity to be involved in the farewell process can be an important learning and healing experience. This helps us show our love and respect to the person who has died, and afterwards you can share your memories, your laughter and your tears."
Winston’s Wish have created a number of activities to download to help children understand and express their grief.