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Supporting Your Child with Grief and Loss

If your child has experienced a bereavement or loss, here is our advice and information on where you can get help.

How can I help my child?

When someone in the family or a close friend dies, it affects everyone and it is vital to support children during such a difficult time. Children can also feel bereaved and experience grief when someone close to them goes away permanently or is absent for a long period of time. The death of a much-loved pet can be every bit as devastating to a child.

A child’s reactions depend on several factors:

  • How close the person was to the child and how involved the person was in their life, or what they meant to them
  • Whether the death was sudden, or expected
  • The circumstances of the death
  • How the rest of the family deal with the death; religion and culture will have an important influence
  • What practical support is available to the family

How children of different ages understand death

Infants can feel loss that affects the way they are looked after and their daily routines; they are sensitive to unhappy feelings around them. They might become anxious, fretful and needy.

Pre-schoolers usually see death as temporary and reversible, influenced in this belief by cartoon characters that ‘die’ and ‘come to life again’.

From age five, children understand the basic facts: death happens to all living things, has a cause, and is permanent separation. They can understand that dead people do not see, hear, speak or feel and they do not need to eat and drink.

Young children believe that they cause what happens around them and therefore can feel responsible for the death, e.g. by being naughty

Teenagers understand death more like adults; they are aware of others’ feelings but can often find it difficult to put their feelings into words. They may not show their feelings in case they upset others.

Siblings  may react very differently to loss.  Where one sibling might be immediately and obviously grief-stricken, another may not show any signs of stress or grief for some time afterwards and find it difficult to come to terms with their loss.

Trauma and mental health

Children and young people respond in varying ways to trauma, such as bereavement. Nearly all will experience and express some level of distress. This can lead to changes in behaviour as they try to cope with their feelings. These changes might include: separation anxiety (especially in young children), sleep disturbance, nightmares, deep sadness, loneliness, developing new fears, losing interest in normal activities, reduced concentration and achievement at school, anger, irritability and physical complaints. The death of a parent, close family member, a friend, teacher or much-loved pet can have devastating and long lasting implications. It is difficult for family members to be brave for others in their family, while they are also grieving. Professional help can be so important in supporting families.

Expected bereavement

When a family member knows they are going to die, a child’s stress levels are likely to be higher because of fear of the unknown. Pre-bereavement counselling can give a child extra support with thinking and talking about their feelings and sharing their worries.

Sudden or unexpected death

When a death is sudden or unexpected, children can show strong shock symptoms in emotional and physical ways. They may refuse to believe it, scream, shake, stop talking, moving, eating or drinking; they may have tummy aches, headaches, pains, dizziness, nightmares or long sleeps. Extreme reactions are normal and the most important thing that family and friends can do is to provide support and safety.

In the first hours, days and weeks, a suddenly bereaved young person in shock needs those around them to:

  • Love, hold and reassure them
  • Make sure they are safe from harm e.g. crossing roads without concentrating
  • Make sure they eat and drink, keep clean and warm, keep some kind of bedtime routine
  • Make sure their responsibilities are covered, e.g. feeding pets
  • Tell everyone who needs to know, e.g. school
  • Include them in what’s happening and help them to talk and try to make sense of what has happened

For help on starting a conversation with your child about a death or loss, download our conversation starters.

Warning signs

If you are worried about your child, seek professional advice and support. This could be from a GP, or one of the many bereavement charities.

 Some warning signs to look out for are:

  • A long period of sadness or depression
  • Reduced interest in daily activities
  • Withdrawing from friends
  • Inability to sleep, loss of appetite, fear of being alone
  • A sharp drop in school performance
  • Acting like a much younger child for a long time
  • Denial about the death
  • Imitating the dead person all the time
  • Talking repeatedly about wanting to join the dead person

These are things that can really make a difference:

  1. Be open and honest with your child. Explain, age-appropriately and using clear language, why the person died. We can find it difficult to say the words and have a tendency to use softer expressions such as ‘gone away’ or ‘gone to sleep’. These expressions can be confusing for young children as they may believe loved ones will come back.
  2. Answer all the difficult questions about death and loss even though it is likely to be painful and uncomfortable. It’s okay to not have all of the answers, feel comfortable in saying you don’t know. Be prepared for your child to continuously ask the same questions. Going over it again can help them to process their loss and gain reassurance.
  3. Listen to how your child is feeling. If they blame themselves, reassure them that it’s not their fault.
  4. Reassure your child that you’re always there for them, as they might be worried about being alone or feel abandoned.
  5. Don’t be afraid to express your own emotions. By showing grief you are encouraging your child to express theirs too. Spend as much time as possible helping your child to show their feelings openly – their sadness, anger and anxiety will come out over time and at unexpected times.
  6. Sometimes they ‘forget’ and believe the person is still alive. This is normal in the first few weeks but can be a problem if it persists. If the problem persists – seek counselling support.
  7. Prepare your child for the changes they may face. The death of a loved one can have a huge impact on the family’s routine and structure. Ease any worries such as who will pick them up from school.
  8. Talk to your child about how they want to say goodbye. Some alternatives could be lighting a candle, letting off balloons, saying a prayer or poem, writing a letter, making a memory box, planting a shrub, visiting the grave or another special place.
  9. Help them make a memory box of photos, films, drawings, some clothing, favourite perfume/aftershave and other significant items. This can be a huge source of comfort. Macmillan Cancer Support offers help with this.
  10. Acknowledge upcoming anniversaries and share ideas with your child about how you can commemorate these.
  1. Take care of yourself. Allow yourself time and space to grieve for your own loss. The more you look after yourself, the better able you will be to support your child
  2. Give your child choice. There is no “best” or “right” time to access support for young people who experience bereavement. You can make your child aware of the different support options that they can access and ask them what they would like to engage with. It is also important to reassure them that they can access support in their own time
  3. Seek professional advice if you are worried and need support in helping the child through the mourning process. This might be the GP who might refer to CAMHS or bereavement counselling.
  4. Don’t feel that you are on your own! – There are lots of organisations that can provide support to families who have experienced a bereavement.

Where can I get help?

Grief Encounter

  • Helping children through bereavement. Support services range from a supportive voice at the end of a phone, family Fundays, Grief Groups and Remembrance Days, to long-term one-to-one counselling.
  • Phone: 020 8371 8455 (weekdays, office hours)
  • Email: [email protected]counter.org.uk

Child Bereavement UK

  • Supports families and educates professionals when a baby or child of any age dies or is dying, or when a child is facing bereavement.
  • Helpline: 0800 0288 840 (Mon-Fri 09:00-17:00)
  • Email: [email protected]

Winston Wish

  • Offering practical support and guidance to bereaved children, their families and professionals.                                   
  • Freephone Helpline: 08088 020 021 (Mon - Fri 09:00 – 17:00)
  • Email their ASK email service for free advice and support following a bereavement:
  • [email protected]

Child Bereavement Network

  • Search facility via postcode to find details of its member organisations that support bereaved children, whatever the cause of death. Families can refer themselves directly to these free services, and other children's professionals (teachers, GPs etc) can get information, guidance and support too.
  • Email: [email protected]

Cruse Bereavement Care

  • Support, advice and information to anyone affected by bereavement
  • Helpline: 0808 808 1677  (Mon & Fri 09:30-17:00; Tue-Thu 09:30-20:00)

Marie Curie

  • Care, guidance and support for people living with any terminal illness and their families.                                       
  • Freephone Support line: 0800 090 2309 and  online chat, (Mon- Fri 08:00-18:00 & Sat 11:00 – 17:00)

The Compassionate Friends

  • Supporting bereaved parents and their families after a child dies. Calls are answered by parents, siblings and grandparents who have suffered the death of a child.
  • Helpline: 0345 123 2304 (every day 10am – 4pm & 7pm – 10pm)
  • Email: [email protected]

Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (SOBS)

Child Death Helpline

  • For anyone affected by the death of a child of any age.
  • Freephone: 0800 282 986 or 0808 800 6019 if calling from a mobile (Mon to Fri 10:00-13:00, Tue & Wed 13:00-16:00 and every evening 19.00-22.00)
  • Email: [email protected]

Dying Matters

  • Resources for helping with conversations about death

MacMillan Cancer Support

  • Advice about preparing a child for loss and making a memory box.
  • Freephone: 0808 808 00 00, Mon- Fri, 09:00-20:00

Barnados

Sue Ryder

parent child 6
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