Did you know that one child in every UK classroom will experience the death of someone close by the time they reach the age of sixteen?
That heart-breaking fact comes from our charity partner, Grief Encounter – an incredible charity that helps children deal with the confusion, fear, loneliness and pain when they experience grief.
We’re extremely proud that Grief Encounter is our charity of the year. It is an amazing charity that provides a lifeline to children and young people, helping them cope with free and immediate one-to-one support. As our charity of the year, we’re so delighted to support them and the incredible work they do. One of our fundraising drives meant we donated 10% of all profits to Grief Encounter for 30 days throughout June. We’re pleased to say that we raised £3,256, which is enough to fund 56 1:1 counselling sessions for bereaved children.
Helping a child through grief is difficult, and every child will cope with the death of someone close in their own way. Whether they are grieving the death of someone in the family, a friend, someone they knew in school, or a pet, there are some practical tips you can use to help you help them work through their grief.
Give them clear, honest, and age-appropriate information
If you can, try to open a conversation about grief in a simple, direct, and age-appropriate manner. Older children and teenagers might typically need more space than younger children if they don’t want to talk. But sometimes, it helps to simply sit together quietly, or offer a comforting hug. It might also help to suggest doing an activity. Make sure they know you’re there for them if they do want to talk, but if they’d rather speak to someone else – perhaps a different relative, family friend or a teacher, then that’s okay too. When you speak to them, try to be as honest as possible and share clear, accurate information about what happened. But it’s okay not to have all the answers – and to tell them that you don’t have all the answers.
Acknowledge their grief and let them know their feelings are normal
There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Every child will feel and express loss differently, and their feelings will change as time passes. Let them know it’s normal to feel sad and down while they grieve. They might also feel anxious or worried about losing other people they love. Other strong emotions might make them feel angry, irritable or guilty, and they might isolate themselves. It’s also normal for grief to manifest itself physically – if they feel unwell or unable to concentrate or sleep.
It’s helpful for you to remember that these feelings are natural and expected, and to reassure your child that the feelings they’re experiencing are normal and they won’t always feel this way. (Please note that if they are experiencing difficulty concentrating or sleeping for a prolonged period, or they are becoming increasingly down or withdrawn, then it might be time to seek professional help).
Keep up normal routines and encourage things they enjoy
It’s natural for children to feel worried that they shouldn’t be having a good time, or that they shouldn’t be smiling and laughing. But reassure them that it’s okay to feel happy and to enjoy something. Grief can ebb and flow; it can hit us differently at different times. Make sure they know that feeling happy doesn’t take away from how much they care about the person they’re missing.
Keeping up their normal routines is important too, as this can help them feel safe and relaxed – and distract them from their grief, even if it isn’t for very long. It might be things like playing their favourite sport or going to the cinema. You need to make sure you’re looking after yourself too, which can be hard if you’re also grieving. Exercise (even short walks), well-balanced meals, and regular routines can help.
Share stories and let them express their feelings creatively
Encourage them to express their feelings; this can help them process and make sense of a loss. Doing this in a creative way can be very effective too. For example, they could write a letter to the person they’ve lost, and they could write about all the things they want to say to them. Or they could start a diary and write down how they’re feeling each day. Creative outlets are a wonderful idea too, such as painting, drawing, or writing songs or poems. You could even build a memory box or photo album together too.
Don’t be afraid to open up and share experiences about your own life – incidents when you also might’ve been sad, scared, angry or frustrated. Tell them about how you got through it and what you learnt. Children look up to the important people in their lives, and they love to hear stories about when they were children. Sharing stories like this will help a child normalise their feelings and what they’re experiencing.
Create new rituals
Rituals are always a good way to process grief, whatever your age. They offer tangible ways to acknowledge grief while also paying tribute and honouring the memory of those who have died. Ritual ideas include visiting somewhere special to the person they’re grieving, like a nice walk or a favourite café. It can be something as simple as lighting a candle and taking some quiet time to reflect or sharing stories about your favourite memories with them. Rituals can be especially important on occasions like Christmas or their birthday.
Listen to them and give them time to grieve in their own way
Being non-judgmental and empathetic about how they’re feeling is the best way to approach conversations. Listen to them and let them share their stories and how they’re feeling. Let them ask questions and answer their questions as best as you can. Focusing on listening and being there for emotional support will make a huge difference as they work through the grieving process. If they’re blaming themselves or feeling guilty (a completely normal feeling and emotion for children), reassure them that they aren’t to blame.
Offer them reassurance, love and support
Make sure you tell them that you love them, that they’re not alone, and they can talk to you (or another trusted relative or friend) whenever they need to. A child’s sense of safety can be completely shaken following the death of someone close to them. This means they can fear that you or other people in their life might die. While, of course, you can’t promise that it won’t happen (and it’d be unfair to do so), you can reassure them in the best way you can.
Explore different tools to help
There are many apps specifically designed to help children and young people deal with and understand grief. Smiles & Tears is a smartphone grief app designed by child bereavement charity Nelson’s Journey, which allows children to record memories, send virtual gifts and write thoughts, feelings and emotions. It also provides tips on how to manage emotions such as anger, confusion, guilt and loneliness. Another option is the Grief app by Child Bereavement UK, which helps 11-25-year-olds who have experienced the death of a loved one. The app was made to help young, bereaved people feel less lonely and inspire others to support them. There’s also a built-in notepad in the app so that the users can freely express their feelings.
Uplifting films about grief and loss, but that also celebrate life, can be a huge help. For example, the movie, Up. This wonderful, family-friendly movie is about an elderly widower called Carl. He’s grieving for his late wife, Ellie, and in his grief, he sets out to fulfil a promise he made to her. The heart-warming snapshots of the couple’s relationship through the years remind us all to appreciate every day we have with the people we love.
There are also books written specifically for children and young people to help them deal with and understand grief. These include The Memory Box: A Book About Grief by Joanna Rowland, The Sad Dragon by Steve Herman and The Invisible String by Patrice Karst.
Seek professional help if you’re concerned
If your child is still struggling over a prolonged period, don’t be afraid to reach out and explore different options for professional help. Keep an eye out if they feel depressed or anxious, are withdrawing from family, friends, and activities, and struggle to sleep or refuse to go to school. Seek help immediately if they are turning to self-harm or expressing suicidal thoughts.
We mentioned at the start of this blog about our charity of the year, Grief Encounter, and the charity has various incredibly useful and informative resources on the website. Grief Encounter was founded by Dr Shelley Gilbert MBE in 2004. Their mission is to give every child and young person access to the best possible support following the death of someone close. The charity works closely with individuals, families, schools and professionals to offer a way through the anxiety, fear and isolation so often caused by grief. Their services include:
- One-to-one counselling
- Group workshops
- Music, art and drama therapy
- Residentials and family fun days
- A national, free and confidential helpline and instant web chat called grieftalk
- Bespoke support for schools, universities and colleges
- A dedicated Trauma Team for support following a sudden or traumatic bereavement.
To find out more, please visit their website: https://www.griefencounter.org.uk/
We hope this blog offers some practical advice and tips for helping children cope with grief. The most important piece of advice is to be patient, be there for them, and reassure them that they are loved.