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Helping children deal with bereavement

Helping children deal with bereavement

The death of a parent or close relative is devastating at any age, but grieving the death of mum or dad at a young age is one of the most profound losses a child could face.

Providing the right support to a grieving child can be instrumental in ensuring they continue to thrive and feel positive about their future. Sarah Bull, the Head of Bereavement at City Hospice in Cardiff (formerly George Thomas Hospice Care), has been providing bereavement counselling to children for more than 12 years. Here, she shares some advice for parents or caregivers seeking to support a grieving child.

  • Be honest - When facing a life-limiting illness, it is always best to be honest with children about what is happening as soon as possible. Where a need is identified, seeking counselling support from a trained specialist can be helpful. Children who participate in counselling before the death of a parent or sibling may need little, if any, additional counselling support in the longer term. 
  • Talk it through - Many people, with good intentions and a desire not to cause further upset, may avoid talking about death with a grieving child. You can’t make things worse, and by showing them you care, it will mean a lot. Plus, by doing so you are giving them permission to talk openly about it with you whenever they like. It is important to let them ask questions, listen to their response, and don’t be afraid to show your own emotions and talk about how death makes you feel.
  • Keep it simple - Adults often use words like ‘passed’, ‘gone’ or ‘lost’ when someone dies, and may avoid using the word ‘dead’ – particularly when speaking to bereaved children. But, generally, children don’t have those same concerns and may find those other words more confusing. Similarly, some people create elaborate stories for grieving children to explain where their parent or sibling has gone. Again, this is often far more confusing for children than the truth. I once worked with a child who became extremely distressed while going on holiday by plane because the pilot didn’t stop to let him visit his granddad, who he was told was now a star in the sky. 
  • Prepare for ‘puddle hopping’ - This is a term often used to describe the way children dip in and out of emotions. While adults tend to become immersed in their grief, it is common for bereaved children to be upset one minute and then asking what’s for dinner in the next. That is perfectly normal and does not reflect how they have been affected by what has happened. Try approaching discussions about the death of a parent or loved one in a similar, ‘puddle-hopping’ manner. Encourage children to talk about their memories of the relative, of how they loved them, and then suggest an activity linked to that, such as finding a nice photograph of them, or drawing a picture of a happy time they’d spent together.
  • Create a memory box - Retaining memories of someone who has died, or who is having end of life care, can be particularly difficult for young children. Encourage them to fill a memory box with things that remind them of that person. They may choose a pebble they collected on a family holiday, or mum’s perfume, as well as their favourite pictures of happy times. Not only can they dip into the box and add to it at any time, but it’s also a great tool for them to use when they want to talk about that person with someone they trust. 
  • Prepare them - By talking children through what they may see when someone is ill or what a funeral will be like, or by giving them the chance to participate in some way, you can help them express their feelings in a healthy way. For example, if a relative has lost their hair because of the treatment they are having, you could explain that this will probably happen, in advance, and perhaps suggest making something for them to cheer them up. Allowing children to be involved in a funeral service can also be helpful – perhaps choosing a song or something to put in dad’s coffin. Where possible, taking children to the churchyard or crematorium beforehand may be helpful, so they are familiar with the surroundings. 
  • It’s okay to cry - Many people ask if it’s okay to cry in front of a child who is grieving. The answer is generally yes. By showing your emotions, you are showing children it’s okay for them to do likewise. 
  • Seek out additional support - There are some fantastic resources available to support families and bereaved children through the grieving process. There are story books that have been written specifically to help younger children explore the feelings they have when someone they love dies. These books include illustrations and activities, and can be great conversation starters for families. You’ll find some available to buy via Winston’s Wish (External link), a UK child bereavement charity that also has lots of helpful information and guidance for grieving families. Other useful information sources include Childhood Bereavement UK (External link) and City Hospice (External link).

A calm positive parenting style, and maintaining your child’s routine as much as possible during difficult times like bereavement – can help children feel more secure.

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