At a time when you are experiencing your own grief at the death of a partner, child, other family member or friend, supporting a bereaved child can seem overwhelming.
Remember, you can only do your best.
Here we give you some information and some guidance on the needs of children and young people when someone important in their life has died.
We have split this information into sections containing additional information. However, if you would prefer to read a single document with all the information included, you can download the Guide for parents or carers (in various languages) below.
The death of someone in the family, whether sudden or expected, changes everything.
The ways in which families make sense of, and cope with, their grief vary greatly.
Everyone’s bereavement journey will be unique. But grief is normal – and necessary – and needs to be expressed.
Although supporting a bereaved child can seem daunting, there are simple, straightforward and practical ways which can make a real difference.
With support and information, young people can be helped to understand what has happened and can slowly learn to live with their loss.
Early on for a child, how a person died is usually less important than it is for adults. No means or cause of death is better or worse than another for a grieving child. They are all overwhelming.
If a death is expected (for example, through cancer or other illness), the family may have had time to prepare for the loss. They may have begun to adjust to the future without the person, to make sure that photographs have been taken, letters to open in the future have been written, goodbyes said. It is very likely that the family will have received help – and will continue to receive help – from a hospice-based service or another support service (such as Macmillan nurses).
However, the family may also have suffered through a prolonged period of stress in which the children felt unable to undertake normal activities or to rebel or have fun; a period when the family focused on the person who was dying in a way that the children found very hard.
If a death is sudden (for example, through a heart attack or road accident) there is no chance for goodbyes and no chance for preparations or adjustment. The last conversations linger in the memory. There is no professional whose role it is to support these bereaved families (although police family liaison officers and hospital-based bereavement services make valuable contributions).
However, for some people, a sudden death may be seen more positively (for example, of a frail grandmother).
If a death is through suicide, there are particular difficulties for the families left behind. It has been estimated that for every suicide, six people will experience intense grief – and many more will be deeply affected. Those bereaved through suicide face especially intense feelings and thoughts, ask themselves more agonising questions and face more public scrutiny. For both children and adults, it can take a long time to dare to trust others again.
Families and individuals within families can have very different views on whether children should see the body after death or attend the funeral.
From our conversations with bereaved children and young people, we know that they value the chance to choose. We have spoken to many children who are really pleased that they did manage to attend the funeral and we have spoken to many others who did not go and later deeply regretted it. In order to make a sensible choice about going or not, they need to know what is involved.
Why it can help to see the body and attend the funeral
Families will have different cultural and religious beliefs about seeing the person who has died and attending the funeral, but it can help a child to:
- begin to say goodbye
- begin to accept the reality and finality of the death
- begin to understand what has happened
- be less scared
- feel part of what is happening
- share with others an important last memory about the person who died
Probably the biggest factor that will affect a younger child’s attendance at a funeral is if they feel their presence is welcome there. If there is going to be tension (as opposed to sadness) they will pick this up and feel more distressed by the atmosphere than by what is happening. Many children understand and appreciate sharing in other people’s sadness- after all it is what they are feeling too. It’s your family. You know them best.
If it will not be possible or appropriate for your children to attend the funeral, for whatever reason, there are other positive ways in which they can be involved. If the funeral happened a while ago and your children have regrets that they did not attend, it is never too late to have a memorial or other ceremony that includes them saying ‘goodbye’. Please view information on alternative goodbyes.
Call the Helpline (08088 020 021) if you would like to talk about your children attending a funeral or viewing the body.
How children and young people experience grief
Children experience grief differently to adults. For adults, it feels like having to wade through rivers of grief, and they may get stuck in the middle of a wide sea of grieving. For children, their grieving can seem more like leaping in and out of puddles. First reactions may range from great distress to seeming not to be interested. One minute, they may be sobbing, the next they are asking: “What’s for tea?” It does not mean they care any the less about what has happened.
Talking to your children about death
Talking to your child about the death of someone close may be the hardest thing you have ever done or will ever do.
Yet to keep talking about the person who has died – offering information, remembering memories and stories, and sharing feelings – is one of the most important things you can do to help your child as they journey through grief. One of their greatest fears is that they will forget the person who died.
When children ask difficult questions, there is no automatic need to give a long explanation. It is often best to start by asking: ‘What do you think?’, and then building on their answer.
Younger children may be confused by some of the everyday expressions that people use when someone dies, such as describing the person as ‘lost’, ‘gone’ or ‘passed away’. It is best to keep language simple and direct. Saying that someone has ‘died’ or is ‘dead’ is honest, helps to avoid confusion, and encourages acceptance.
Some feedback we have had from children
When young children hear answers such as ‘we’ve lost your mother ‘ they may feel confused wondering why no one is looking for her. Similarly answers such as ‘Granny has gone to sleep or passed away in her sleep’ may prompt a child to worry about going to sleep at night keeping them (and parents) awake.
Even the language we use with the very best intentions of giving appropriate and accurate descriptions can confuse a child. Take a moment to think about it from their point of view. Here are some examples of misunderstandings that children have shared with us:
‘Someone attacked daddy in his heart but I couldn’t see the cuts.” (His father had a heart attack.)
“They told me my baby sister was born dead. But how could she be both?” (Her sister was stillborn.)
“If he passed his HIV on, why did he still have it?”
The language surrounding funeral rites can also confuse. Children who are asked if they want to see their mother’s body have asked: “Why not her head too?” Similarly, when people talk of burying or cremating someone’s body, children can wonder what happens to all the other bits.
“She was beside herself when I suggested she came with me to see the new headstone on her mum’s grave. It was only later that she told me she’d thought it would be her mum’s head changed into stone. Logical really because we talk of her body being in the grave.”
Children who have always been told to avoid fire and flames may be alarmed at the idea that their relative’s body is to be burnt.
Families try to tell their children what they believe about life after death. Some families may believe in a heaven or another place beyond this world. Some may believe that the person who has died is a star, or an angel, or is ‘all around us’. Some may believe that the dead person will be reborn in some form. Some may believe that death is an ending.
Young children sometimes misunderstand what these ideas mean. Children have told us that if the person who has died has gone to heaven or is watching over them that they worry whether they will be seen when they are being naughty or want to be private. They wonder why their parents don’t ring or write from heaven. They struggle to understand how grandad can become a planet.
“Mummy said daddy had gone to heaven. But she won’t take me to see him”.
“Granny lives in Cornwall so I don’t see why we can’t go and visit him: you go through heaven to get there.”
“Gran says mum can see me all the time. So she must have seen me hide the sweets. She won’t love me any more because I said I hadn’t.”
It may be best to say something like: ‘People have all sorts of beliefs about what happens after someone dies. We know that they can’t come back and visit us or ring on the phone. Being dead isn’t like being in another country. These are some of the things that people believe – and I believe this – I wonder what you believe? You may change what you believe as you grow older’.
Our national Helpline offers support, information and guidance to anyone caring for or supporting a bereaved child or young person.
Important reminders for parents and carers
- Remember that ‘super parents’ don’t exist. Just do what you can, when you can. Be gentle on yourself.
- There is more than one way to support your children. Choose the things that you feel most comfortable with.
- Accept that some things just can’t be ‘made better’ in a short space of time.
- Talk to children using words they understand and ask questions to check they have understood you.
- Give information a bit at a time if your children are younger. Pieces of the ‘jigsaw puzzle’ can be put together over time to make the complete picture.
- Show children how you are feeling: it helps them to know that it’s OK to show their feelings too.
- Encourage children to ask questions and keep answering them – even if it’s for the 100th time.
- Answer questions honestly and simply; and be willing to say ‘I don’t know’.
- Try to find ways in which children can be involved.
- Keep talking about the person who has died.
- Trust yourself and your instincts – you haven’t forgotten how to parent your child.
- Look after yourself too.