How do I support a bereaved child?
by Sue Ryder
We all find it hard to cope when someone we love dies. Helping a child to cope with the loss of someone they love can be particularly difficult when you are dealing with your own grief. But there are things that you can do to support children through this difficult time.
Just like adults, children go through a process of grief. And just as there’s no rulebook for being a parent, there’s no rulebook for how they will grieve, or how you can best support them. Sometimes they may be very sad and upset, sometimes they may be naughty or angry, and at other times they may seem to have forgotten all about it. But they will not have forgotten, they will still want and need to talk, share memories and explore their feelings.
The key is to tell and show them that it’s all right to feel and express emotions - and to support them to make sense of what’s going on. Some of the things you can do are:
- Reassure them that it’s not their fault:
When someone dies, children can blame themselves. This can happen particularly if the death is quite sudden, or the child has had a difficult relationship with them, or an argument – even if the argument was quite a long time ago. It’s important to reassure them that nothing they have said or done has made this happen and they couldn’t have done anything to change it.
- Understand that they haven’t forgotten about it:
Parents quite often say that their children don’t seem to have acknowledged the loss and seem to be carrying on their lives as normal. Sometimes people tell us their children are very upset one minute, but two minutes later they start talking about normal everyday things, such as who will be taking them to football.
This can be very upsetting as an adult, as it can feel as if your child doesn’t care. But it is not because they have forgotten or are not upset - it is normally because children can’t deal with strong emotions for long periods of time. It’s almost as if they have an ‘automatic shut-off’ which kicks in when they are unable to cope with the intensity of their emotion any longer.
- Show them it’s ok to be upset:
Children model their behaviour on how those around them are behaving. If you are telling them that it is ok to grieve, but are trying to hide your own grief from them, they may feel that they also need to ‘be strong’. The best thing is to grieve as fully as you can, so that they can see you grieve - and understand that it’s ok to be sad, angry or cry. In the same way, the more you can talk about it with them, the more they will feel able to talk about it.
Often children take on a ‘protector’ role and don’t talk to adults about their own feelings because they think that the adult will get upset. You need to tell them that it’s ok for them to talk to you or to another friend or relative if they prefer to - and that it’s ok to feel sad because someone special has died.
- Let them know that it’s ok to have fun:
You also need to let the child know that it’s ok to play and to have fun. Children often make sense of difficult events through play. Playing is therapeutic, as it gives children a break from grieving and a chance to express their feelings in their own way. It allows them to relieve anxiety and stress through movement.
- Create stability:
If it is a parent who has died, children can understandably become worried about their surviving parent dying too. Children need to be cared for and to know who will care for them. It gives them a sense of security to know that lots of things will stay the same. It helps to continue with some of their existing routines, such as going to football on a Saturday or to a particular friend’s for a play date.
Sometimes they can become clingy, as losing someone they love and changes to their routine can make them anxious. You can help by letting them know what’s going to be happening - ‘Aunty Jo will be picking you up from school tonight.’
- Don’t be surprised if they do things they had grown out of:
Grieving children may start to behave in the way they did in an earlier period of their lives when they felt safe - this is called regression and is a normal reaction following a significant bereavement. They may start wetting the bed again, or having temper tantrums, sucking their thumb, or not wanting to go to school. You can help by cuddling, nurturing and understanding their need to grieve in this way.
- Let them share their feelings and fears:
Children can experience all sorts of fears following the death of someone they love. They may worry that they or other people they are close to will leave them or will die too. They can also become very angry, especially at times when the person they love would normally be there – such as Mother’s Day, a football match or school play - and anniversaries can also be particularly hard. Wherever possible you need to give children lots of opportunities to express their feelings. This could be through talking, through play, or through drawing and painting.
- Be ready for their grief to re-surface at key times:
It is not unusual for children to re-visit their grief at key stages or points of change in their life, such as when they start primary school, secondary school or university and at significant events or dates such as birthdays, anniversaries, Father’s Day and Christmas. If a day or event is coming up that their special person would normally be at, talk to them beforehand about what they would like to do. You can then decide together what you will do on the day. For example, you might say ‘It’s Mother’s Day on Sunday, what you would like to do on that day?’
- Create traditions and ways of remembering:
Rituals and ways of remembering can be really important for children. This might be creating a memory box, regularly looking at photographs or having special ways or places where you remember and talk about the person you have lost. These special times can become part of your family routine.
- Let your child take the time they need to grieve:
There are no rules for adults or children about how long it is ‘normal’ to grieve for and everyone is different. How often they saw the person may make no difference to how long they grieve.
For example, sometimes children may adapt more quickly to the loss of someone they used to see frequently - as the change to their routine makes it clear that the person is not coming back.
They may take longer to accept the loss of someone they see more rarely because a lot of the time things seem the same. In these cases, children may ask when the person is coming back, even if they went to the funeral. As difficult as it may be for you, retelling the story can be really important to help children process what has happened.
- Watch for signs of depression:
Children can experience similar signs of depression to adults: they feel low in mood, become withdrawn, are less interested in seeing their friends, and don’t want to do anything. This can be a normal part of the grief process. But if it goes on for a long time, or if you are worried, speak to your GP about getting support.
- Don’t feel you have to cope on your own:
It can be particularly hard to help your child when you are also dealing with your own grief.
You may also worry that you are not ‘doing it right’ or are somehow making things worse. Remember that this is not something you have to do on your own. Your family and friends, healthcare professionals and your child’s school can all help.
There may also be a specialist bereavement service locally that you can use. Make sure you have lots of support around you and other family members and friends who can support you.
If you feel you would like more specialist bereavement support, good places to start looking are your GP, Cruse Bereavement Care and your local hospice – if they can’t provide support they should be able to signpost you.