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How can I help my child cope with a bereavement?

Many families across the country will be affected by the loss of a loved-one during the coronavirus pandemic. Lisa Fathers, Director of Teaching School & Partnerships, Bright Futures Educational Trust Executive Team, explains how we can help our children cope with loss during these exceptional times.

Children and young people all deal with grief differently. Death is a huge thing for a young mind to process.  After losing a loved one, a child may go from crying one minute to playing the next. These sudden shifts in mood do not mean that he or she isn’t sad or that they do not realise what has happened, children cope differently than adults, and playing can be a defense mechanism to prevent a child from becoming overwhelmed. It is also normal to feel depressed, guilty, anxious, or angry at the person who has died or at someone else in the family. It is normal to feel really upset one minute and frustrated the next and it is normal to want to distract yourself with every day things and even laugh at times.  I like to describe these jumps between grief and doing daily life things ‘jumping in and out of puddles off grief’ sometimes the puddles are deep and hard to get out of and some tines they are very shallow and we only get a bit wet.

When someone dies, a child’s sense of safety is really affected. The realisation that there are things beyond our control is quite hard to swallow. Children may worry that other adults in the family might die too. Maintaining some kind of routine and modelling normal grieving is crucial. How well children cope will often depend on how other adults in the family are coping so it is important that everyone practices self-care. One idea is to have a safe corner in the house and at school where children can go to be upset and to hug someone or where there is a favorite teddy etc. It is good for children try and name the emotion and it is often hard to really unpick whether a child is feeling angry or sad and  one way to help talk about emotions ( and memories is by using memory stones. In my Starline conversation I explain this.  There are many good children’s books about death and I’ve put a huge list together on my teaching school website here:

Sometimes children find it really hard to talk about death but they may want to express themselves through drawing, or creating a memory box or even using the Blob tree. Another nice tool to use is creating a button tree.

Age appropriate support
Remember that very young children often don’t realise that death is permanent, and they may think that a dead loved one will come back if they do tidy their bedroom or perhaps at birthdays or Christmas. Children may be able to articulate that ‘Mummy died of the Coronavirus’  but may repeatedly ask if Mummy is still collecting them from nursery.  Older, school-age children understand the permanence of death, but they may still have many questions. Try to be factual and remember that in the absence of facts children will make their own versions of events up, we call this ‘magical thinking’.  Try not to use clichés or euphemisms, if you say ‘passed away’ they won’t understand, equally ‘went to sleep forever’ might make bedtime a frightening experience.  Teenagers have a lot of hormones and other teenage challenges and if they are not coping well family need to look out for risk taking behavior.

Grief Rituals

At the moment due to restrictions it is hard for families to have what we would usually think of as a ‘proper funeral’ and a good celebration of life so families have to be creative and find ways to still make sure there are events to celebrate life and to provide some comfort and closure. It is also really hard not to be able to hug other people in the family. It might be that as the pandemic situation improves we can hug our families again soon.

If you do not think a child or young person you are supporting is grieving in a normal way after a six month period then you should access local help from local services or via your GP or you can of course contact the Winston’s Wish help line: 08088 020 021

This Blog was written by Lisa Fathers, Director of Teaching School & Partnerships, Bright Futures Educational Trust Executive Team.