Helping Children Through Bereavement:
Written by Andrea Davis, Family Adviser, St Mark’s Primary School.
Bereavement for any child can be an emotional, confusing time. They may hear unfamiliar language and see adults around them going through the grieving process, without understanding what has really happened. Many adults find this a difficult time too and are welcome into school for support, they may also find this page useful.
(For the purpose of providing examples in the explanations, the term ‘Nan’ has been used as the person who has died.)
Some points to consider;
Never give promises you are not able to keep – for example, if you have a family member that is terminally ill, it is better to say the Doctors are doing everything possible to try and make sure Nan is not in pain, but do not give assurances that they will be fine again if this is not likely. Encourage your child to draw them some pictures, send a photo or write a poem for them if they cannot visit.
Think about how you are going to tell your child the news when a person has died and what language you will use. If you say you have ‘lost Nan’ the child may think Nan will be coming back. By using words such as dying, or death, it provides more of an opening of conversation around a definite ending.
Some families like to say their loved one is now in Heaven, in the clouds or as a star, for example. If this gives you and your child some comfort, ensure other family members, friends and school staff are aware of your choices, so their conversation can be of a similar nature.
Its important to give age-appropriate information to children. They all mature emotionally at different rates, and you are the best person to know how much details to tell them of the death. Always leave the door open for your child to come back and ask further questions, to save them from ‘wondering’ and making up their own false answers. If this is too upsetting at first for you to do, ask another trusted adult to share your child’s concerns. Some children prefer to be kept in the loop and will want to know as much as you feel they can cope with, others may just want the bare bones, but this doesn’t mean they care any less.
Some children will want to talk about the person who has died and will find this comforting. By listening to your child and acknowledging their feelings, you will be able to grieve together. If you can, share your own feelings too as a role model to your child. It is perfectly acceptable for them to see you are upset and crying as they will appreciate you are sad too.
It is quite normal for children to switch between emotions fairly rapidly, so don’t be surprised if your child has an upset moment, and then goes off to run around the garden. Children still appreciate routines during an unsettled period as this gives them security and a feeling of being safe, in a world they are familiar with, this can include attending school as normal.
There can be moments that may overwhelm both your self and your child. This can often be driven by our senses. In grief, it is often said there are six senses, all of these provoke personal memories to us. For example, hearing a special song, tasting a favourite cake or seeing an empty arm chair can all heighten our emotional state, our sixth sense in grief can be classed as our thoughts – so children may seem perfectly ok at one minute and then they think about Nan, and it can bring up the sad thoughts that they will never see her again.
First anniversaries of birthdays, Christmas and special days can also bring a wave of sadness when your child realises Nan will not be present. Reassure your child that although things will be different, Nan would not want them to be sad all of the time. Use photographs to show your child some positive aspects of Nan’s life, so your child can focus on happier times and memories with Nan.
Some children worry they will forget the person, so by talking and sharing memories you will be able to help them celebrate Nan’s lives. For many younger children, it will not seem real for a long time.
Should Your Child Attend A Funeral?
This is entirely up to individual families to choose. Once arrangements have been made, if you feel your child is old enough and would benefit from saying goodbye with the rest of the family, visit the Church, Crematorium or Graveyard to help explain the process. Show them pictures of a coffin and explain how the service will run. The funeral arrangers will often help with this if you require support, as can school staff.
Some families prefer their child just to attend the Wake as they feel this is more suitable for them. It would still be beneficial to explain this event to them and that some adults may at first be upset but then may start sharing special memories for Nan. School can provide a ‘funeral bag’ with games and colouring in to help settle the child on arrival.
Balloon releases, picnics in a favourite spot, lighting a candle, planting a tree, making a memory box, can all be positive ways for children to say goodbye and feel they have been included into part of the arrangements.
Age Appropriate Resources:
Badger’s Parting Gifts, by Susan Varley.
This is a delightful story of an elderly badger who dies. His friends; Mole, Frog, Fox and Rabbit are sad and overwhelmed by his death until they remember things the badger helped them to learn, which then become a treasured legacy, such as teaching Fox to tie knots. It is a gentle story and can be used as a conversation starter with young children to discuss their special person they miss.
School has a story sack with the book and characters to help explain the story to children, if you wish for your child to share it with a staff member.
Muddles, Puddles and Sunshine, by Diana Crossley, is a book promoted by Winston’s Wish. When completed, it will provide a lovely memory book of Nan, this can take years to complete as it is an easy resource to dip in and out of and the activities do not need to necessarily be done in a specific order. It is always important to go at the child’s pace.
I Miss You, by Pat Thomas, is a picture storybook, ideal for younger children to help explain death in very simplistic terms.
Water Bugs and Dragonflies, by Doris Stickney is a national best seller. It is a book explaining death to children through the lifecycle of a dragonfly.
ORGANISATIONS OFFERING SUPPORT
Winston’s Wish https://www.winstonswish.org Support for children after the death of a parent or sibling. Includes materials for professionals and schools. Policy and strategy templates including focus areas such as SEND, Armed Forces, Suicide, Homicide. National Helpline offering guidance, information and support to anyone caring for a bereaved child, including professionals and family members
Childhood Bereavement Network http://www.childhoodbereavementnetwork.org.uk A network of child bereavement services including some training resources
Not Too Young to Grieve is a film created with Childhood Bereavement Network and explores how very young people respond to loss https://www.leedsanimation.org.uk/films/15
Cruse UK https://www.cruse.org.uk A national network of support and helpline for those bereaved. Also has a wide range of resources for schools and a helpline for professionals and loved ones
Hopeagain https://www.hopeagain.org.uk For Young People by Young People offering hope in grief and loss (part of Cruse UK) Childbereavement UK https://www.childbereavementuk.org Helpline for families who have lost a child. Also has a helpline and live chat via the website. There are some excellent reading list suggestions at this link: https://www.childbereavementuk.org/resources-for-adults-supporting-bereaved-childrenand-young-people
The Compassionate Friends https://www.tcf.org.uk Support for families who have lost a child – parents, grandparents and siblings. Helpline, support groups and online resources. Good examples of what to say/not to say if supporting someone
Gingerbread https://www.gingerbread.org.uk Specialist support for single parents including advice on bereavements, what to expect from your workplace and accessing benefits
Widowed and Young (WAY) https://www.widowedandyoung.org.uk Support for those bereaved of a spouse at a young age