Speaking to children about bereavement

Speaking to Children about Bereavement

We’re incredibly proud of our charity partnership with Grief Encounter. We’ve worked with them for two years now, with the ultimate aim of raising both vital funds and awareness of the phenomenal work they do. We’ve learnt a lot from the partnership. One of the most important aspects has been the different ways to support bereaved children and young people and the significant impact that support has.

Grief Encounter is at the forefront of that support. It’s an amazing charity that provides a lifeline to children and young people, helping them cope with free and immediate one-to-one support. Through our charity partnership, we’re delighted to support them and their incredible work. So far, we’ve raised £1755.00 for Grief Encounter in 2022 alone, making our overall total over £5000 since the start of our partnership.

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.


How to tell a child that someone has died

Ideally, this is done by someone who is closest to them. It is best to tell them as soon as possible, in a place where they can be supported and free to react naturally. Allow for time together for comfort, support and any questions they may ask. Sometimes, it helps to sit together quietly or offer a comforting hug. It is okay to show your emotions and to explain that you are sad because the person has died.


Explain what death means with straightforward, 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 need more space than younger children if they don’t want to talk. Try to be as honest as possible about what happened. Use clear language they can understand, for example: “I have something very sad to tell you. Grandad has been very ill for some time, and now he has died.” Using clear words such as ‘he has died’ are easier for children to understand than ‘lost’ ‘passed away.’ You may need to repeat the information, Especially with a young child.

If they have questions, answer them as honestly as possible, but keep explanations short, clear and appropriate for their age and understanding. It is okay to say you don’t know the answer to a question but that you will come back to them if you find an answer.


Dealing with their reaction

Depending on their age, children absorb and process information differently and tend to show feelings with behaviours rather than words. For example, they might show distress or anger or ask questions. They might not even react at all initially. That doesn’t mean they don’t care or haven’t heard you; it might just be a shock, and it’s sinking in, so they may suddenly come back with a reaction or question later.

Common reactions to grief include:

  • Feeling anxious or insecure
  • Being angry
  • Confusion about the death and why it has happened
  • Feeling protective of others
  • Reduced self-confidence
  • Wondering if they were somehow responsible for what happened.

There is no right or wrong way to deal with these reactions, but it’s important to reassure them that they are not to blame and that different feelings are okay.

Speaking to Children about Bereavement


What to do immediately after breaking the news

Try to keep up with everyday routines as much as possible. If the death involves someone who was a big part of their day-to-day routine, tell them about plans for the days ahead, including who will take them to school or activities. If you need to leave them, tell them when you will be home or who will be looking after them – this will help them feel secure and demonstrate that important adults are there for them.

Keeping up their regular routines 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 visiting the cinema. You need to ensure you’re looking after yourself too, which can be tricky if you’re also grieving. Exercise (even short walks), well-balanced meals, and regular routines can help.

Make sure they know you’re there for them if they 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.


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 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.

It’s helpful for you to remember that these feelings are natural and expected, and to reassure your child that the emotions 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 – please see advice further down).


Explaining funerals to children

It’s helpful to explain to children what a funeral is and why we have them. Young children and babies can go to a funeral with the rest of the family or just attend the gathering afterwards. As long as a child is prepared for what will happen and what they will see, attending the funeral can be an important part of the grieving process.

Involving children in funeral planning can help them feel part of the event, even if they do not attend. For example, they could make a drawing or card which could be placed on the coffin, or they might have a favourite poem or a song they would like to be included. It’s also worth looking into live streams, as some venues allow a live stream so that people at home can watch the funeral. In addition, keepsakes from the funeral service can be very meaningful for children. For example, some flowers from the tributes to press and keep, or the order of service.


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.


Share stories and let them express their feelings creatively

Encourage them to express their feelings; this can help them process and make sense of 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. Or they could start a diary and write down how they feel each day. Creative outlets are an excellent idea too, such as painting, drawing, or writing songs or poems. You could even build a memory box or photo album together.

Don’t be afraid to open up and share experiences about your own life – incidents when you 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 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.


Listen to them and give them time to grieve in their own way

Being non-judgmental and empathetic about their feelings is the best way to approach conversations. Listen to them and let them share their stories and emotions. 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 massive 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 that they can talk to you (or another trusted relative or friend) whenever they need to. A child’s sense of safety can be shaken entirely 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

Many apps are designed to help children and young people deal with and understand grief. For example, Smiles & Tears by child bereavement charity Nelson’s Journey, and the Grief app by Child Bereavement UK.

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 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.

Grief Encounter


Seek professional help if you’re concerned

If your child is still struggling over a prolonged period, don’t hesitate 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, struggle to sleep or refuse to go to school. Seek help immediately if they are turning to self-harm or expressing suicidal thoughts.


Our partnership with Grief Encounter

We mentioned at the start of this blog about our partnership with Grief Encounter, and the charity has various beneficial and informative resources on its 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 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 help following a sudden or traumatic bereavement.

To find out more, please visit their website: https://www.griefencounter.org.uk/

 Supporting Grief Encounter

We hope this blog (featuring advice from Child Bereavement UK and Barnardo’s) offers some practical tips for speaking to children about grief. The most important advice is to be patient, be there for them, and reassure them that they are loved.

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