Helping Children Cope with the Loss of a Loved One

When children experience bereavement, it can be a very difficult time as they try to cope with unfamiliar feelings and comprehend what dying means.  Our Community and Pre-Need Manager, Louise Clarke, has over 18 years’ experience working within the funeral industry and helps to run the Neville Funerals’ Talking Elephants groups and Lea Bereavement Support Service courses.  She also supports CHUMS with its child bereavement workshops and counselling.  Here she gives her thoughts on what parents and relatives can do to support children through the grieving process.

Children and young people grieve just as much as adults but they show it in different ways. They learn how to grieve by copying the responses of the adults around them, and rely on adults to provide them with the support they need in their grief.

We get lots of questions from parents and relatives who are unsure how to best support their children, especially when they themselves are also grieving.  Every child is unique and will cope with their loss in their own way.  There’s no rule book that says how to support your child but some of these tips might help to make sense of things and gain a better understanding of what they might need throughout the days, weeks, months and even years ahead.

  • Look after yourself – Managing life and dealing with your own grief, as well as supporting your child, is exhausting. Try to eat well, keep hydrated and get some rest.  Ask for (and accept) help from friends and family.  No one expects you to be a superhero and it is OK for others, including your child, to see you upset.
  • Be open, honest and truthful – giving bad news to a child is always difficult. Be honest with them and give the information using language they can understand.  Only give as much information as your child wants and answer their questions truthfully.  Don’t be afraid to tell them if you don’t have the answer, but reassure them that you will try to find out.
  • Use the correct language – it is important to use real words such as ‘dead’ as it is the best way to explain to a child what has happened. Stay away from phrases like ‘passed away’, as this could lead them to think the person might come back. Similarly, ‘gone to sleep’ could evoke a fear in sleeping or that the person will wake up.
  • Try to keep to a routine – children thrive on routine, so try to carry on as much as possible with the normal routines of home, school, clubs, time with friends etc. The familiarity of school and being around friends can be comforting and give your child a chance to have some time off from grieving.
  • All reactions are natural – children can experience a wide range of feelings after the death of a loved one. Common behaviours might include anger or tantrums, not sleeping, being irritable or restless, repetitive behaviour, attention seeking, appearing sad and withdrawn, or subject avoidance.  You might feel that some of their reactions are inappropriate, but each child will react differently and each reaction is natural.
  • Involve children in the funeral – including your child in how to say goodbye can be a valuable part of their grieving process. Talk to them and explain what options are available to them.  For example, let them pick special songs or poems, or have a say in which coffin they want for their special person.  Suggest they might want to put a special note, drawing or object into the coffin.  If they then decide not to attend the funeral, they did at least have a part in the goodbye.
  • Dealing with the future – there are no timescales for how long the grieving process should last. Remember to be kind to yourself and take each day as it comes.  Talk often about the person who has died and find your own ways to remember them.  Talking to your children about the person who died gives them permission to talk about them too.

There is a lot of information out there about bereavement but it can sometimes seem a bit overwhelming and parents and relatives often feel unequipped to support their children.  Neville Funerals has recently launched a free guide called ‘Supporting a Child Through Bereavement and Beyond’ which is easy to read and offers practical advice on how to help children understand what they’re going through and what happens when someone dies.

It has been designed to help parents or carers, support children through this difficult time and covers a range of topics including how to break bad news; typical behaviours and what to look out for; how to explain a funeral, burial or cremation; and looking to the future.  A free copy of the book can be obtained from any of Neville Funerals’ eight branches.

Remember that this is not something you have to do on your own. Your family and friends, healthcare professionals and your child’s school can all help.  There may also be a specialist bereavement service locally that you can use.  Good places to start looking are your GP or local hospice – if they can’t provide support they should be able to signpost you to organisations that can.