Children, young people and grief
The impact of the death of a loved or significant person to a child or young person should not be underestimated. Bereavement is considered an adverse childhood experience so getting the right support and care at this crucial time is important.
Children and young people may struggle to understand or accept their grief and need a neutral person to support them.
How we can help
We offer support and care for any child or young person through our Children and Young People service. We have two members of staff and a number of volunteers who are involved in either one-to-one support or with our CruzKids events.
When we might not help
Death is a 'normal' part of life and external intervention isn’t always the best option. We don't want children to feel that there might be something wrong with them for feeling grief, so we need to consider the best course of action for each child’s circumstances. To ensure our bereavement support is in the best interests of children and young people, we won't provide one-to-one support in the following circumstances:
- If the child is under the age of five. However, we will work with parents/carers to support this age group.
- If the child or young person does not wish to explore their grief.
- When there are multiple issues and grief is not the main concern.
- If the child or young person has not been told how the person has died using appropriate language. We can support with this.
If you have any questions regarding the criteria we are happy to chat anything through.
Talking to children about death
It's important that you have the conversation with children about their grief and answer their questions honestly and use appropriate phrasing.
Be honest and convey the message that death is permanent. Using the phrase 'their body stopped working' can be a good way to do this. It may be tempting to try to soften the blow, but if a child asks if the person who has died will come back, you should say no. Any suggestion that the death might not be permanent can cause issues later on as the child will have hope that we know will never come true.
Avoid using phrases that may be unclear, misunderstood, or that might suggest the death might be the child's fault. It's OK to use the words 'dead' or 'died'. Some phrases that you may want to avoid using include:
Which may not mean anything to a child.
"In a better place"
Which suggests that being with the child wasn't the best place.
"Gone to sleep"
Which suggests that they might wake up.
"We lost them"
Which suggests that we might find them.
Explain the circumstances around the death
Try to let them understand how it happened so that they don't wonder what happened, and start to make up their own stories. Children have very good imaginations and might come up with ideas that are worse than what actually happened.
Let the child know it's not their fault
Make sure that there's no suggestion that the child is to blame, or any way they might think that they caused the death by something they did or didn't do, or said or didn't say. Don't wait for them to ask - let them know it's not their fault.
Try to prevent them worrying
It's only natural for the child to worry that something bad is going to happen to them, or to other people they love. Let them know that although one person has died, it doesn't mean that something bad is going to happen to them or to other people as well.
Check their understanding
The child might ask the same question a few times, or ask the same question in a different way. It doesn't mean they're not listening, or that they don't understand (although it might). They might just be trying to understand in their own terms, or by checking that they understand what they think they're being told. They may not look like they're listening or engaging but it doesn't mean they're not. They may want to be doing something else like playing with a toy, or drawing/colouring in - they can do that while they listen.
Don't expect a particular reaction
Don't try to anticipate how the child will react. They could be sadness or tears, there might be laughter/giggles, there might be little reaction - there's no right way for them to respond.
Cruse Bereavement Support in the UK outlines what children from babies upwards experience grief and the impact it can have on them.
Helping teenagers cope with grief
Teenagers, by their very nature, can be complicated so when someone close to them dies, it's important to try to discuss their feelings. Moreso than with younger children, teenagers will tend to have a full understanding of what death means and maybe even how it will affect them. They may want to go back to school quickly because of their peer support and also because it offers routine and some normality. Sticking to their pre-bereavement routine is important and will make them feel secure and that life is continuing. They may prefer to talk to their friends about what's happened, and that's ok. You can still let them know that you are there for them if they need it.
Grief is individual with a wide range of emotions and feelings. They may range from happy to sadness. They may feel tired (emotionally and physically drained). Their whole world has shifted and it is important they feel supported and cared for. They may exhibit anger and frustration, mood swings or high risk behaviour such as self-harm, or alcohol or substance abuse.
Should children come to funerals?
The most important thing to consider is what the child wants to do, but there are other factors, such as:
- What is the relationship between the child and the person who has died?
- How old is the child?
- Do they want to attend the funeral?
- Will there be lots of people upset at the funeral – will the child understand this?
- Do they understand what this means and what are the implications of not going to the funeral for the future?
- Going to the funeral can help the child understand what has happened and say goodbye.
There are some things you can do before the funeral to help prepare your child. By letting them know what to expect, it can help ease any anxiety they may feel.
How to prepare children for a funeral
- Explain what the funeral is for and what will happen
- Let them know that there are no set feelings they should have during the ceremony.
- Don’t avoid talking about the funeral around your child. It may make them feel excluded
- Include them in planning the funeral. If they’d like to, find ways in which they can take part in the service. This can help them say goodbye
- They may want to write something to be read out during the ceremony, put something in the coffin, or they may want to say something. Discuss what they may want to do with them
- Let them know that they can change their mind, even at the last minute.
- You may want to ask someone you both trust to help during the ceremony – if they want to leave the funeral they can have this option.
- If your child doesn’t want to go to a funeral
- If your child has said they don’t want to attend the ceremony, reassure them that this is okay. They are not being disrespectful and they won’t get in trouble.
You could try to find other ways to involve them
- Share photographs of the ceremony
- Talk about what happened at the service
- Write a letter to the person who has died
- Make a memory box. Gather letters, badges, photographs and keepsakes from their loved one. They can open this and remember them when they need to
- Talk about some of the good times you all shared together
- Visit the grave, if there is one, when they’re ready to
- If there is a cremation, explain where the ashes are going to be kept, if known, for how long and what will happen to the ashes in time
Complicated grief in children
Complicated grief is defined as being 'stuck' in their grief with the grief becoming a way of life with no escape. It is worth being aware of the signs and accepting that the child or young person may need extra support.
This type of grief can be defined by the relationship the child had with the person who has died, what were the circumstances of the death, was it unexpected or by suicide? Has the child suffered other losses? Has the timing of this death coincided with other significant events in the child’s life – parents getting divorced, starting a new school, moving house.
What type of personality does the child have – are they good at coping? Are they resilient?
What is their environment like – are they from a loving, caring home or are there issues with family members at home?
Just because there is a higher risk of complicated grief doesn’t not mean the child or young people will experience it but being aware that a death can affect them is worthy of note.