How to Help Children with Bereavement

Today we have a useful but gentle guest post by child psychiatrist Mike Shooter on the touchy subject of helping children cope with the death of a loved one and the process of bereavement.

There was a time, just a few generations ago, when death was part of life. Parents died young and at home; many children did not reach adulthood. In other words, families were well acquainted with bereavement and what it meant in their lives.


Thanks to modern medicine and public health, death is thankfully much rarer these days, but when it comes it is usually sanitised, tucked away on the hospital ward. Out of the children’s sight and out of their mind, or so the adults hope. In our effort to protect ourselves from thinking about death, we have difficulty talking about it as adults and have often shut children out of the experience all together.

There is no fault in this. Parents do what they do out of the best intentions, but for the children it may not be best at all. Here are a dozen suggestions, drawn from my work with children, young people, their parents and carers, over nearly forty years.

1. Grief is normal

We cannot avoid bereavement; it will come to us all at some point in our life, adults and children alike. When it does, grief is not an affliction to be swept under the carpet, or an illness to be treated with a pill. We need a chance to express our feelings openly, not have them flattened with an antidepressant - however tempting it might be for the GP to reach for the prescription pad to ease the pain.

2. The feelings are disturbing

It used to be said that the stages of grief passed one at a time, from shock to realisation, from despair to acceptance, and out the other side. Anyone who has grieved will know that this is far too neat an idea. Grief is much more like a washing machine, with all sorts of emotions tumbling over each other and in no particular order. And some of them may be very disturbing, like anger and guilt. Parents and children are not getting it wrong; that’s just how it is.

3. Children turn feelings into behaviour

Children often express their emotions in physical terms, translating grief into tummy aches and headaches at best, or harsh words and physical attacks if they are really angry with people who have died or those left behind. Be patient. Try not to tell them that their tummy doesn’t really hurt or get angry in return. If we talk to them and get them to talk back to us, we can turn their physical pain back into emotional pain, where we can comfort it more successfully.

4. Grief should be shared

It is quite understandable if parents try to keep a stiff upper lip in front of the children. We imagine that this will help shield them from the experience of bereavement and the pain we are feeling about it ourselves. In fact, children will be feeling that pain too, and if they see that the adults are not grieving it may convince them that what they are feeling is wrong. The best thing we can do is to grieve with them together. Then maybe we can comfort each other.


5. Children know more than you think

Sometimes we may think that if we don’t talk openly to children, they won’t know what is going on. But they will always have an inkling at least and may fill in the rest out of their imagination, in a way that may be even worse than the truth. Try to explain things to them in simple, straightforward language that doesn’t confuse them with words like “passed away” and “gone on a long sleep”. Someone has died. Children may struggle to understand the permanence of that and may ask awkward questions as they try to puzzle it out. This is how they try to make sense of the situation. But it hurts.

6. They need to feel involved

Children need to share in the bereavement, not only in the emotions and knowledge involved, but in the rituals of grieving too. Most would like to visit the dying person in hospital or say goodbye to their body after death. You may be surprised at how curious they are about the tubes and charts, rather than frightened. And ask them if they would like to go to the funeral, to write messages of love to be put in the coffin, to help scatter the ashes or be present at the graveside. They will be upset, of course they will, but that’s what the rituals are for. A chance to share our tears together.

7. Routines are important

Grief is chaotic and you may find that children are anxious to get back to school, to their clubs and sporting activities as soon as possible. Long before you have got back to work or anything like normal in the home. Let them. It doesn’t mean they are ignoring the bereavement or cutting short their pain. It is their way of holding on to the landmarks in their life amongst all the feelings rushing around and inside them.

8. Grief cannot be parcelled up

Bereavement does not usually begin with the death. Most people know that they are dying in advance and that is a good time for adults and children to share what they want to say and do together. Things that might otherwise get buried too. This is why sudden deaths are so much more difficult to come to terms with. And grief doesn’t end tidily either. Parents and children may get back to their lives, but we can all be ambushed when we least expect it, by birthdays and Christmas and chance sights and sounds and smells that remind us of the dead person. It’s OK to grieve a little, all over again.


9. There is no going back

Bereavement changes life forever. However we keep alive the memory of those who have died, by photographs and memory-boxes, and by laughing and crying together over anecdotes from the past, we cannot go back to relationships that are exactly the same as before. They are bound to have changed, that is what is so painful, but bereavement may be an opportunity too. It is a chance for children to grow emotionally, to take on new roles in the family, and to discover more about themselves as a person.

10. Some things are very strange

Bereavement is difficult enough at the best of times, but some of the experiences involved can be quite alarming. Children may say, in a matter of fact sort of way, that they see the dead person around the house, talk to them in their bedroom at night, and seek their advice. If they are brave, adults may admit the same, but they rarely talk about it for fear they are going mad. They are not, and neither are the children. Such experiences are quite normal. And if you think about it, it would be far more strange if all our senses of someone so close to us were shut off at once.

11. Death is not the only bereavement

There are many different sorts of loss other than death, and some of them may be even more difficult for children to comprehend. Moving house and away from school and friends, for example. And divorce, where the “dead body” is still alive but all sorts of residual hostilities amongst the adults get in the way of the children grieving the loss. And adults are apt to play down some major losses for children and young people, like the death of a pet or their break-up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. Don’t be tempted to buy another dog straight away, and don’t say there are plenty more fish in the sea. Right now, there are not!

12. Children and their own death

Regretfully, some children with serious illness will have to face their own mortality. They may have a keen sense of when they are dying and will need a chance to talk about it in the same way they would talk about anyone else’s death, however heart-rending that may be for the parents. Not to allow them to do so would be to condemn them to a lonely death, aware of what is going to happen to them but unable to share it. And brothers and sisters need to take part in that too. Some of them may be thinking they have caused it, by being angry with their sibling for being ill and monopolising the parents’ attention. They need a chance to get rid of this magical thinking and the guilt it may involve.

And finally, there are many children’s books and films about bereavement and organisations around to offer help and advice. To consult them about how to deal with your children is not a sign of failure. Bereavement is a very complicated business and sometimes dealing with your own pain and that of your children at the same time can be quite overwhelming. You don’t have to cope alone. Indeed, if coping means trying to pretend that everything is all right, you don’t have to cope at all.

Growing Pains: Making Sense of Childhood by Mike Shooter is out now, priced £7.99, available from Amazon and all good bookstores.




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