Last reviewed 10 December 2018
Martin Hodgson looks at ways of helping children who are going through bereavement.
When a child is bereaved, or has a loved one who is going to die, he or she will require support and understanding.
In some cases, a child may be suddenly and unexpectedly bereaved. A parent or sibling may die, perhaps in an accident, without warning.
In other cases, a death may come after a period of terminal illness. Some children live with a sibling who has an illness that brings a limited life expectancy and they may have health issues of their own.
Early years staff can be of great assistance in supporting bereaved children in their care and helping them to cope with the death of a loved one. In some cases, a bereaved child may turn to a member of staff when they need to talk about their loss.
Staff should recognise that a child's loss is not isolated to their own bereavement and happens within the context of a grieving family. A loss will affect the whole family and in some cases a surviving parent, or both parents in the case of a child's death, may find it hard to cope.
Children and loss
Very young children do not understand the concept of death but do react to loss, particularly if it is the child's mother who has died. Infants may be difficult to comfort and young children can become withdrawn, and lose interest in interacting with others, or with playing or eating.
However, while young children may react to loss, they will not comprehend that death is final. For example, after being told of a death or experiencing a death, a toddler might actively seek out the deceased individual, and ask when that person is coming back. Their questions may appear insensitive or matter-of-fact and the child may betray little emotion, even carrying on with their games.
Death, and especially the rituals around death, can be confusing for a toddler. Beliefs vary from culture to culture and things may be said to a young child to try to comfort them at a difficult time. A child might be confused by being told that a deceased person is “sleeping” or on a “long journey”.
Children around the age of five will start to gain an understanding that all people die and do not come back. However, this can lead them to be anxious that other people they care for may die. They are likely to ask many questions about death and about funeral customs.
For a child who has lost a parent, mixing with other children at this stage can give rise to sudden feelings of loss, especially when they see other children with their parents.
Just like an adult, a child will need to grow through the pain and confusion of loss and move towards healing and acceptance. All adults who interact with the child and are important to him or her, including staff at their early years provision, can help by supporting the child through this process.
It is important to remember that grieving is a process and it will take time. Children should not be rushed and should be given time to move towards healing in the manner that works for them. Pushing children too quickly back into “normal” activities, even when done with the best of intentions, can cause negative reactions.
Guilt and regression
Feelings of guilt are common in children during bereavement. Children may believe that they were somehow the cause of a death, or of the deceased person deciding to leave them. They may attribute the cause to their own actions or words, even if it was something like misbehaving or leaving their toys on the floor the day a parent died.
It is important to help young children understand that nothing they said or did caused, or could have prevented, the death.
Other children may regress to more childish behaviour when faced with loss. Thus a three-year-old may start to act as if they were two. Some of their behaviour may even become challenging. They may have tantrums or a potty-trained child may start wetting themselves.
In such situations, patience and understanding are key. Regression is a common stress reaction and is usually a way of returning to a time when things felt safer. With support, it will usually pass as the child moves towards healing.
Responding to a bereaved child
Some people may feel that it is best to ignore or avoid talking about bereavement with a child. They may assume that a child who is bereaved will not understand about death, or that talking about the death will upset them or cause distress. They may also feel uncomfortable talking about bereavement themselves, or may want to protect the child's feelings.
However, any child who suffers a loss needs to grieve and such a reaction is a normal response. A young child may not be able to cognitively understand death but they still need to cope with their feelings. Children of any age should be encouraged and given time to talk about how they are feeling, and should be supported to work through their emotions at their own pace.
Talking to children about death must be matched to their developmental level, using words they can understand. Staff should be respectful of their cultural beliefs and sensitive to their feelings.
All children will react differently to bereavement. It is important to recognise that their experience is real to them and that their grief is no less important just because they are a child.
Staff should speak honestly to a child and should avoid using metaphors for death and loss or covering things up. They should acknowledge the grief of a child and give them time to speak and ask questions if they want to.
Staff should stay in close communication with the bereaved child’s family without imposing. Bereavement will be traumatic for families and can suspend daily life. Some families will want their child to carry on attending school or an early years provision, but some might want to keep them at home. Knowing that the staff will be understanding and supportive when they do return will be reassuring.
Where children are bereaved after a period of illness, they are likely to have some form of care or input from the professionals and teams involved in the care of the dying person. Some of this care and support may be directly provided for the child concerned and take the form of pre-bereavement counselling or support. In some cases, the child’s loved one might be obtaining support and care from a hospice or another palliative care service.
Parents who know they are going to die are often encouraged to make a memory box to give to a child. The box will contain objects that remind the child of their time with the parent.
Some people may wish for their young children to attend the funeral of a loved one so they can say goodbye, but others may not. There is no right or wrong. Given the choice, some children may even want to contribute something to the service.
Where a child does attend a funeral, he or she may have questions they will want to ask. These should be answered honestly and it is important that they are reassured that any choice they make is right.
Anniversaries can be very difficult, both for children and for their families. Being aware of these times and sensitive to a child's feelings will help to ensure they feel supported.
Significant dates might include birthdays, the date of the death, or events such as holidays or Christmas.