Grief is the word we use to describe the feelings we have after someone dies. Everyone grieves in their own way. It can be hard to know how to support your children as they grieve, especially if you are struggling with what has happened too.
Even babies and small children feel the sadness when someone they love dies. Children and young people cope best when the adults they rely on are honest with them and explain what has happened in a way they can understand.
If you are supporting a bereaved child it will help you to know some of the ways that children grieve differently to grown ups. This is affected by their age and level of understanding of what death means. Children don’t fully understand that death is forever until they are about 7 or 8 years old.
It can help for your child to learn about anger. You can support them do this.
Children don’t show their grief all of the time
Children tend to ‘move in and out’ of grief – one moment very upset and the next asking what’s for tea. They cannot cope with ‘big feelings’ for too long at a time. Children let themselves take a break from their feelings which is very healthy.
Revisiting grief again and again
Children and young people revisit their grief as they grow and understand more. What you miss about having a Dad when you are six will be different to what you miss when you are 16. So children may grieve ‘hard’ at different times in their childhood even if the person died long ago.
Remembering the person
Talking about the person who died and saying their name is healthy. You might feel worried it will make you or your child feel sad, or bring back difficult memories. When we avoid these conversations children learn to push down and avoid thoughts and feelings.
There are many ways you can remember them everyday, and also on days that can feel harder like birthdays or Christmas.
Those who are very young when the person died will need your help to learn more about the person and feel a connection to them.
Photo’s, memory boxes and talking about your own memories of the person are good ways to help your child ‘get to know’ the person even though they have died.
It is hard knowing you have to give your child bad news that is going to cause them pain.
Whilst no parent would want to do this it is such an important job, and you know your child best.
Bereavements like suicide and murder can still be explained to children in a way they can understand.
Read more about discussing tricky topics
Use simple language. Use the words ‘dead’ or ‘died’. Using words like ‘lost’ or ‘passed away’ confuses little children and makes it hard for even older children to understand when they are in shock.
People expect to feel sad after someone has died. That can be a big part of the feelings but adults, children and young people will experience a lot of other emotions too.
There are no ‘right or wrong’ ways to feel. You will probably notice that for children and grown ups feelings sometimes change from one moment to the next.
Different feelings will come and go at different times. There is no right or wrong way to get through it. Reassure your child that what they are going through is a part of grief and it will not always be this hard.
Give your child opportunities to talk about what they are going through;
When your child is going through a hard time – it's easy to let boundaries slip. This can make your child feel like everything has changed – they will feel safer and more secure if you keep to important rules.
If your child feels sad and overwhelmed help them to think about what helps. Do they need time alone or a cuddle? Does playing with the dog, or going to the park help the strong feelings to pass?
Whether your children go to the funeral of someone they love is a very personal decision. You know your children best.
Funerals are an important part of saying goodbye. They are a good chance to be with others, who cared about the person, and to share and listen to memories.
Even very small children can attend funerals and be a part of a special family time if that is what you decide.
If you think your child should go it is important they understand what a funeral is and what it will be like. Watch the video below for help on explaining a funeral to a child.
Things To Think About
If they are very young and won’t remember, or they are not going to attend, ask someone to ‘collect memories’ for them. This could be;
If your child is not going to attend the funeral think of other ways for them to say goodbye;
Pets are an important part of the family. You might be surprised by just how upsetting it is when a loved animal dies. It is very sad and affects everyone. Pet death might be a child’s first experience of someone they have loved dying, or they may have been through loss before. Either way it is a painful experience and causes all of the feelings of grief.
CBeebies has some good advice for supporting younger children when a pet dies.
Newsround have a good video for older children.
Support From Nursery Or School
You may decide to keep your child at home with the family for a short while after someone they love has died, or they may want to be at school. This is a personal decision and you know your child best.
Schools can play an important part in supporting bereaved children. Both in the early days and as time goes by. It is important they know when something difficult has happened in a child’s life. Let nursery / school know what has happened as soon as you can.
Make a plan for when your child goes back to school. Involve your child in deciding what might help going back a bit easier. School may have some ideas of how to help, or know services that can advise them and you.
Schools sometimes need reminding of what your child has been through as time passes.
Keep school informed if you notice your child seems to be struggling – however long after the bereavement it is.
Support For Yourself
It is difficult to cope with your own feelings of grief as well as supporting your family. Taking care of yourself is really important, and will benefit you and your children.
Read more about looking after yourself here
If you notice any of the following you could need some mental health support;
It is important you tell someone and get professional help.
See your GP to talk about this or get in touch with Norfolk Wellbeing Services. You can also call Just One Number to talk to a health professional.
It is an emergency if you do not feel ‘safe’ and think you might hurt yourself, you should ask for an emergency GP appointment or go to A&E.
When To Get More Support
Although it is not easy many children and families cope with the sadness of the death of a loved one in their own way.
You might worry that your child needs help to make sense of their feelings.
Talk to your child about what you have noticed, and why you are worried. See if they know what has triggered their feelings and behaviour. They might have some good ideas of what they would find helpful.
Find out more ideas for getting through bad days
Explain that you think it would be a good idea to ask other people for help too, tell them who you are going to speak to.
Talk to nursery / school, and explain your worries. School may be able to provide support or be able to refer for more help.
Call Just One Number to discuss it with a health professional, or speak to your GP.
You can contact the Healthy Child Programme by calling Just One Number on 0300 300 0123 or texting Parentline on 07520 631590. Our opening hours are 8am-6pm Monday-Friday (excluding bank holidays) and 9am-1pm on Saturdays.
If you are 11-19 you can text ChatHealth on 07480 635060 for confidential advice from one of our team.
You can speak to other Norfolk parents and carers by clicking our online community forum below.