Bereavement can be one of the most traumatic life events for anyone, but it’s often especially tricky when you’re trying to support a child who is bereaved. Children often have very different reactions to a bereavement, and their understanding of the reality of death depends greatly on their age and maturity. It may be that you’re also managing your own feelings of bereavement if you’ve lost a partner, child or parent. But whatever your situation, it helps to know a little about common reactions from children who are bereaved, along with some helpful strategies for helping them deal with their grief.
Ways children may react to bereavement
Shock is often the first reaction to bereavement, especially if death has occurred suddenly (such as due to an accident). Children may seem withdrawn and detached, though younger kids may seem relatively unaffected at first, perhaps because they don’t grasp the permanent nature of death. Initially, you will often see forms of self-protection to avoid facing things. Children may return to immature behaviors like thumb-sucking or bedwetting, and they may show attachment issues.
For example, if they’ve lost a parent, they may not want to let the other parent out of their sight in case ‘something happens’ to them too. They may also show anger, becoming explosive or confrontational, especially if they can’t verbalize how they feel, or they might repeat the same questions out of a need for constant reassurance. Teenagers can become moody and withdrawn, or they may be reluctant to talk for fear of upsetting you.
8 ways to help children face bereavement
1. Model how to grieve
Being open about your feelings, including allowing yourself to cry, gives kids the confidence to express their own reactions. Never tell them to ‘be brave’ and not show their feelings because this could lead to complications later.
2. Encourage them to talk
Talking is one of the most effective ways to allow kids to work through their grief, so give plenty of opportunities for them to say what’s on their mind. By mentioning the person who has died, you give them ‘permission’ to talk about that individual, and hopefully open up avenues for you to share your feelings together.
3. Read books about bereavement
This is often a very helpful strategy for younger children, helping to explore the emotions and circumstances around death and bereavement in a non-threatening way. Books such as ‘Badger’s Parting Gifts’ by Susan Varley, or ‘Dogger’ by Shirley Hughes offer a starting point for conversation, and you could move on to other ways of commemorating your loved one that is suggested in the books.
4. Link to their pets
Often children first experience bereavement through the death of a much-loved pet, so draw on this as an example so you can talk about what happens when someone dies. This also affords opportunities to explore death rituals in your particular culture.
5. Create your own rituals
You can help to facilitate your child’s healing by helping them do something concrete to express their feelings, so inventing your own grief rituals can be hugely comforting. Talk to them about what they’d like to do, and then do your best to make it happen. Small kids may want to draw pictures, whilst older ones might want to do something very personal—for example, my niece wrote a beautiful poem to read at her grandfather’s funeral.
6. Write a letter
Writing a letter to the deceased is a very positive way for a child to feel they’re in touch with their lost loved one. This can be especially valuable if the death occurred suddenly, perhaps leaving things unsaid, or if there had been a recent argument. Younger children may want you to write a letter to them.
7. Enjoy photographs
Photographs are a superb way to encourage children to talk about their memories of happy times. Compiling a photo album can work wonderfully when it comes to helping them create a lasting memorial, and it can bring great comfort when it’s reviewed.
8. Seek professional help if necessary
Some children may have especially strong feelings or have deep issues that need resolving. In cases like this, you may need to seek professional help (e.g. through counseling or play therapy) to help them work through their grief
There are no hard and fast rules for helping children work through a bereavement successfully, but being open and sensitive to their needs is the best way to support them at this difficult time.