Every year thousands of children face bereavement through the death of a grandparent, parent, sibling or friend.
Adults are understandably engrossed in their own grief and children's grief may go unnoticed. However, the way in which children are helped when sad things happen may have a profound effect on how they are able to adapt to loss and change throughout their lives. For a child or young person, bereavement can be an acutely sad and difficult time, to the point of being overwhelming. Children differ in exactly how and when they respond, and what they need of others as they live through the experience
Grief - Five Simple Rules
- Share your grief with your other children
- Encourage them to share their grief with you
- Express your love with kisses and cuddles
- Make quality time to talk and listen
- Answer questions honestly
What To Say
The kindest course is to tell a child what is happening or has happened in words they understand. In the absence of a truthful explanation, children's fertile imaginations will conjure up the worst possible scenario sometimes imagining that they are responsible. Use simple phrases, answer questions honestly and say if you don't know the answers.
Children will ask what they need to know.
Children's grief reactions are usually intense but short-lived. Young children are receptive to the grief of a parent and can become clingy, and they may sometimes refuse to go to bed alone and want to keep adults in sight. Avoid changes in the daily routine such as meal and bed times. Seeing a parent in distress is very frightening and parents should be prepared for emotional and physical responses such as tearfulness, bedwetting, and tantrums. Younger children can feel guilt and imagine they contributed to the death in some way, even by wishing the baby would go away when they experienced pangs of insecurity.
They must be reassured that the baby was different and weak, and the death was nobody's fault. Children are at a 'magical' stage of thinking, believing that the world revolves around them and they may therefore feel responsible if a baby dies. Death can be related to events in the natural world such as animals and flowers dying, and use the word 'dead' to describe what has happened to the baby. Words like 'loss' and 'taken from us' should be avoided since young children often understand language literally and may think that death is not permanent.
Young children are not able to sustain grieving behaviour for long periods. It is thought this is likely because they are so overwhelmed by emotions that they 'withdraw' from the grief and get on with familiar routines. Their expression of sadness tends to range from bitter outbursts of crying to quiet withdrawal. There are picture books for very young children to help them understand, and they can be encouraged to express their feelings by drawing pictures and engaging in play.
Children at School
School may become the one place in their lives they feel is unaffected by the death and they might appear to be 'coping' remarkably well. Occasionally children may refuse to go to school, feeling that if they are at home they can make sure that all is well. Children may worry about breaking down in front of school friends. They may have off days when concentration is difficult, or get into arguments and fights. Teachers need to know what has happened and what information the child would like the class to know. The school should provide a quiet 'safe' space where children can spend time during the school day if they wish to rest, and someone the child can go and confide in.
Older children will worry about the reality of death, their own and a parent. Many become over-protective of a parent and try to assume the family tasks and responsibilities, or they can be sullen and refuse to talk about what has happened. They may try to protect the adults around them by hiding their grief or giving other reasons for being sad. Some children develop vague headaches and stomach pains.
Where families are members of faith communities, children's understanding of what happens after death will reflect the teachings and beliefs of the community and what they have been taught. Children are interested in death rituals and funerals and may be happier to talk to someone outside the immediate family such as a close relative or teacher. They can express their feelings by keeping a daily diary, and new interests such as sport or music are a positive step.
Funeral Directors and hospitals have a Chapel of Rest and many families take their other children to see the body of the dead baby. Parents may be anxious about the effect this might have on brothers and sisters, but children have vivid imaginations and it is kinder for them to see, and perhaps hold the dead baby to reassure themselves the body of the child looks peaceful and is no longer alive. It may be difficult for the adults to accept this, but for the children death is a natural part of life, and they may have had experience of it with wild animals, pets and older relatives. Siblings treasure a personal keepsake or photograph.
Warn children this is a sad occasion and the way we say goodbye when someone dies, and involve them in the planning of the funeral.
Perhaps they can place flowers on the coffin, say a prayer or reading, or choose a favourite song or hymn. Many families have a small balloon release after a service and children can take part and release their own balloon.
Parents preoccupied with their own grief may not realise just how unhappy their other children are. Families share happiness and they should be able to share sadness and tears and understand that grieving can be a lengthy process. Don't be afraid to let your children see you cry, and tell them what has made you sad or even angry, and explain that this anger is not directed at them, and that it is tiredness that may be making you irritable and bad tempered.
Give extra cuddles to the quiet child who is suppressing their emotions in order to protect the parent from further distress. Older children tend to hide their feelings anyway and wonder if their behaviour contributed to the death. There are books written about death aimed at all age groups, and it can help to read them together and discuss the way the issues are dealt with.
'I want to say I miss you
But I know it makes them cry,
I want to hug and kiss you
And never say goodbye,
They talked in gentle whispers
And said that you had died,
So I sit here quietly playing
And keep you deep inside'
Ways of Supporting Children
Provide continuity of care and routines.
Encourage creative play and activities such as painting.
Talk to the child about what has happened.
Answer questions honestly and in age-appropriate language.
Reassure the child that they were not responsible for what has happened.
Encourage fun and enjoyment as well as opportunities to express fears and concerns.