The only thing we know that is certain about life, is death. We are all going to die, we just don’t know when. Different people and cultures have different attitudes towards death; some see it as a transition, some see it as a finite end, and for others, they freely admit, they just don’t know. In the UK, 1 in 29 school-aged children has been bereaved of a parent or a sibling, that’s one in virtually every form in every school. It is estimated that 24,000 parents die each year leaving dependent children. So how do you help the children and young people in your care when they experience the death of a parent, sibling or close relative?
How death impacts young children
Even as an adult, when we are more likely to understand the reasons behind it, death has an enormous impact on our emotional, psychological and sometimes, financial state. For children (who are often still trying to define what their emotions are), the impact of death can have lasting, unseen consequences in terms of self-esteem, guilt or behaviour.
The concept of death from a child’s perspective is very different from that of an adult. When adults are talking to children about death, they need to understand how children conceptualise and make sense of death at different ages. If they understand this, then they can talk about death and respond in an appropriate manner, one which takes into account the child’s developmental age.
The following is a guide to how children relate to death in the early years:
- For birth to 2 years, children are not usually able to conceptualise death and their capacity to remember specific personal relationships is limited, although infants do feel loss and separation. They may react to the death of a primary caregiver by becoming angry or anxious. They may also internalise the grief shown by adults around them in some way.
- From 3 to 5, children will begin to understand that something serious has occurred, although they may not be able to comprehend that death is a permanent thing. If a child is bereaved at this age, they will show their fear and confusion through their behaviour, not through words, and may therefore display more challenging behaviours or have difficulty with everyday functions such as eating, sleeping and using the toilet. You may also witness them displaying separation anxiety, or they may even appear unconcerned at times. At this age, language is usually very literal, so avoid using euphemisms such as telling a child that their parent is ‘sleeping’ which can result in them believing that one day they will return, causing further confusion.
As children get older, their understanding of death and its permanence increases, so adults should adjust their language in accordance with the developmental age of the child.
What issues do children face?
Some of the main issues that children face when coming to terms with bereavement include:
- difficulty in recognising or accepting the loss
- problems talking about the person who has died
- an inability to understand the permanence of the situation
- social exclusion or isolation
- life changes such as a house move or a change of school
- financial difficulties for the family
As a result, children may begin to feel anxious about their future but may not have the words or emotional literacy to describe how they feel, especially pre-school children who are still coming to terms with everyday emotions. That’s when the adults around them need to be particularly patient, understanding and honest.
How to help children who are bereaved
Luckily, there’s a lot of guidance and support available nowadays to help children (and adults) dealing with bereavement. You can find advice from bereavement charities, medical associations, citizens advice centres and the NHS to name a few.
Obviously, it is important to deal with things on an individual basis as and when they come up. However, here are some of the things that bereaved children have said that adults can do to help them in times of need:
- acknowledge that a death has occurred and be honest when talking about it
- talk to children in an age-appropriate way and give them age-appropriate material to help them understand
- allow children to express their emotions and share their feelings
- set aside time for children to remember their loved one
- allow them to attend funerals
- ensure children have opportunities to talk to others who have experienced bereavement too
- help children understand that they are not to blame for any deaths
Children’s Grief Awareness Week UK
The child bereavement charity, the Childhood Bereavement Network, and other, similar organisations are trying to help children (and grown-ups) navigate a path through their grief. Each year, it organises an awareness week, and in 2019, this runs from the 15th to 21st November. The aim is to highlight the issues that children face and try to provide some practical solutions.
The theme for 2019 is ‘Remember When’, encouraging everyone to share their memories of a loved-one either online or on a social media channel using the hashtag #RememberWhen.
You can find out more at childrensgriefawarenessweek.com. They are particularly interested in helping children remember something about the people who have died, and you could use some of these questions in your setting to talk about loved ones, then link it in to talking about the fact that some children have unfortunately experienced the death of a loved one.
#RememberWhen everyday memories: e.g. What did they like for breakfast? What was their favourite song?
#RememberWhen special times: e.g. a birthday, a wedding, some special time together, favourite places
#RememberWhen find out more: collect memories of the person who died from people who knew them well – ask them to share a memory with you
#RememberWhen help through tough times: memories of a time when someone supported you in your bereavement
Above all, be patient, understanding and compassionate and you will be able to help children through this traumatic time.
For more information and advice, see:
Grief Encounter helpline: 0808 802 0111