- Breaking Bad News To Children
- Pet Death
- Support From Nursery or School
- Support For You
- When To Get More Support
- Bereavement During COVID-19
- The Grief Shipwreck
- Shelf Help
Young children get confused by the words adults sometimes use to describe death like ‘lost’, ‘gone to sleep’ or ‘passed away’.
Children are helped by grown ups using the word ‘dead’ and ‘dying’ to help them begin to understand what this means. This might feel harsh but if other words are used it can cause a lot of muddles and worries.
Children don’t show their grief all of the time
Children tend to ‘move in and out’ of grief – one moment very upset and the next asking what’s for tea. They cannot cope with ‘big feelings’ for too long at a time. Children let themselves take a break from their feelings which is very healthy.
Revisiting grief again and again
Children and young people revisit their grief as they grow and understand more. What you miss about having a Dad when you are six will be different to what you miss when you are 16. So children may grieve ‘hard’ at different times in their childhood even if the person died long ago.
It is hard knowing you have to give your child bad news that is going to cause them pain.
Whilst no parent would want to do this it is such an important job, and you know your child best.
- Think about your child’s age and understanding. Decide what they need to know now. Look at the tabs below about age and understanding.
- Choose a quiet and private place. Do you want to be alone with your children or do you want someone else with you?
- ‘Warn’ your child that you need to tell them something sad. ‘I’m afraid I have some bad news to tell you’.
- Be honest – trying to protect your child by saying untrue things can lead to a lot of confusion and upset and even loss of trust in the future.
Bereavements like suicide and murder can still be explained to children in a way they can understand. *Click here* to read more.
Use simple language. Use the words ‘dead’ or ‘died’. Using words like ‘lost’ or ‘passed away’ confuses little children and makes it hard for even older children to understand when they are in shock.
People expect to feel sad after someone has died.
That can be a big part of the feelings but adults, children and young people will experience a lot of other emotions too.
There are no ‘right or wrong’ ways to feel. You will probably notice that for children and grown ups feelings sometimes change from one moment to the next.
- You might find, especially in the early days that you and / or your children feel ‘numb’ and the tears and upset don’t happen straight away.
- Some people feel very tired and sleep a lot. Don’t worry about this – it is the brains way of taking on board something really hard.
- Sometimes people feel relieved to begin with especially if a person has been very ill or the relationship has been very difficult.
- People may feel angry for all sorts of reasons with themselves, other people or the person who has died.
- There may be feelings of guilt about things that happened in the relationship, or even that you are still alive.
- It is common to feel worried and anxious about other people you love and your own health.
- Children may feel jealous and cross that other people still have their parent / grandparent – it can feel unfair.
Different feelings will come and go at different times. There is no right or wrong way to get through it. Reassure your child that what they are going through is a part of grief and it will not always be this hard.
Give your child opportunities to talk about what they are going through;
- Talking is often easier when you are doing something else – like cooking, walking the dog, driving back from the supermarket.
- Encourage questions – if you don’t know the answer that is okay. You can always agree to try and find out for them.
- They may feel protective of you and want to talk to other family and friends or someone at school.
When your child is going through a hard time – it's easy to let boundaries slip. This can make your child feel like everything has changed – they will feel safer and more secure if you keep to important rules.
- Whilst all feelings are okay your child needs to know safe ways to show them. If you are angry it is okay to punch your pillow or listen to loud angry music – but it is not okay to hit your brother or swear at a teacher.
- If an angry outburst has happened take time out to talk about it when things have calmed down. Help them have coping strategies ready next time they feel that way.
- You will not all grieve in the same way and at the same time. A good day for one person can be a bad day for another. Talk about this and how you can manage it.
If your child feels sad and overwhelmed help them to think about what helps. Do they need time alone or a cuddle? Does playing with the dog, or going to the park help the strong feelings to pass?
Whether your children go to the funeral of someone they love is a very personal decision. You know your children best.
Funerals are an important part of saying goodbye. They are a good chance to be with others, who cared about the person, and to share and listen to memories.
Even very small children can attend funerals and be a part of a special family time if that is what you decide.
If you think your child should go it is important they understand what a funeral is and what it will be like.
Watch the video below for help on explaining a funeral to a child;
- Involve them in the planning – let them help to choose music / flowers.
- You may decide together that they should attend for some parts of the day and not others.
- Ask a person they know well to be their supporter for the day so they know they can leave if they want to.
If they are very young and won’t remember, or they are not going to attend, ask someone to ‘collect memories’ for them. This could be;
- Getting people to write memories of the person who has died in a book.
- Taking photos of flowers and where the service was held.
- Keeping copies of orders of service.
If your child is not going to attend the funeral think of other ways for them to say goodbye;
- You might visit a special place to remember.
- Plant a tree in your garden / in a pot together.
- Light a candle.
- Write letters / draw pictures / choose photos to go in the coffin, or keep in a special place.
*Click here* for more ways to include your child in a funeral.
Pets are an important part of the family. You might be surprised by just how upsetting it is when a loved animal dies. It is very sad and affects everyone. Pet death might be a child’s first experience of someone they have loved dying, or they may have been through loss before. Either way it is a painful experience and causes all of the feelings of grief.
- Tell your child what has happened in a straightforward and honest way.
- Use the words dead and died and explain what that means. ‘Benny was very ill, the vet couldn’t make him better, his body stopped working and he died’.
- Decide how you want to say goodbye to your pet with your child. Children often like to hold some sort of ‘funeral’ for a pet. This can be a good opportunity for them to say goodbye and understand what a funeral is.
- Sharing your feelings and comforting each other sets a good example of how you get through hard times together.
- Let school / nursery friends and family know your pet has died.
CBeebies has some good advice for supporting younger children when a pet dies *here*.
There is a good Newsround video for older children *here*.
Talking about the person who died and saying their name is healthy. You might feel worried it will make you or your child feel sad, or bring back difficult memories. When we avoid these conversations children learn to push down and avoid thoughts and feelings.
There are many ways you can remember them everyday, and also on days that can feel harder like birthdays or Christmas.
- Photos and videos are precious. Make sure that you have copies and ‘back up’ files on phones and computers.
- Choose some special photos to have around the house. Let your child choose some that they want to have for themselves. Tell the stories that go with the photo.
- If you have family or friends who remember the person when they were growing up it can be helpful to get them to talk / write what they remember about them.
- Treasure memory boxes help on days when you are really missing the person or want to talk about them. *Click here* to watch a video about how to make and use one.
- Plan ahead for times you know might be hard. *Click here* for ideas for what you can do together.
Those who are very young when the person died will need your help to learn more about the person and feel a connection to them.
Photo’s, memory boxes and talking about your own memories of the person are good ways to help your child ‘get to know’ the person even though they have died.
You may decide to keep your child at home with the family for a short while after someone they love has died, or they may want to be at school. This is a personal decision and you know your child best.
Schools can play an important part in supporting bereaved children. Both in the early days and as time goes by. It is important they know when something difficult has happened in a child’s life. Let nursery / school know what has happened as soon as you can.
Make a plan for when your child goes back to school.
Involve your child in deciding what might help going back a bit easier. School may have some ideas of how to help, or know services that can advise them and you.
- The teachers can talk to your child’s friends about what has happened and help them know how to support your child.
- Discuss how much information you want others in the school to have. If your child is older they will want to know ‘who knows what.’
- They can have a named person to go to for support.
- Make a plan with school for moments when your child feels overwhelmed.
Schools sometimes need reminding of what your child has been through as time passes.
- Let new schools / new teachers know about this important event in your child’s life.
- Let school know if a hard anniversary or day is coming up.
Keep school informed if you notice your child seems to be struggling – however long after the bereavement it is.
It is difficult to cope with your own feelings of grief as well as supporting your family.
Taking care of yourself is really important, and will benefit you and your children.
- Ask family and friends to help out if you can. People often offer in the early days but you might need to remind them as time goes on. People like to feel useful.
- Talking to other people who have been in similar situations can be a help. There are websites and online forums out there for many different kinds of bereavement. *Click here* to search for local ones.
- Looking after yourself is important eating well, getting rest and being active. This might feel too hard – but it will help your mind and body to cope better with what has happened. *Click here* to read more.
If you notice any of the following you could need some mental health support;
- You struggle to take care of yourself and your family
- Your sleep too much or too little.
- You are drinking too much alcohol/ taking drugs to cope
- You don’t want to be with your family and friends and / or they are worried about you.
It is important you tell someone and get professional help.
See your GP to talk about this and / or *click here* to get in touch with Norfolk Wellbeing services. You can call JustOneNumber to talk to a health professional.
It is an emergency if you do not feel ‘safe’ and think you might hurt yourself. You should ask for an emergency GP appointment or go to A&E.
Although it is not easy many children and families cope with the sadness of the death of a loved one in their own way.
You might worry that your child needs help to make sense of their feelings.
- They may seem ‘stuck’ and be overwhelmed by difficult feelings such sadness, anxiety or anger.
- They may be more aware of what they ‘miss’ as they grow and understand more.
- They might have really bad memories of what happened and need help to manage this.
- You may notice they don’t seem to ‘care’ and are taking risks, struggling with school work and attendance.
Talk to your child about what you have noticed, and why you are worried. See if they know what has triggered their feelings and behaviour. They might have some good ideas of what they find helpful. *Click here* for some ideas.
Explain that you think it would be a good idea to ask other people for hep too, tell them who you are going to speak to.
Talk to nursery / school, and explain your worries. School may be able to provide support or be able to refer for more help.
Call Just One Number to discuss it with a health professional, or see your GP.
The coronavirus outbreak has brought extra complications for children and families when someone important dies. Whether the person has died from COVID-19 or for another reason it is harder to grieve in the way we usually would.
We may not be able to see and be with the people we love at a time when usually we would be together.
The funeral may not be able to take place in the way we want. It is not always possible for everyone who wants to go to the funeral to be there.
As well as this, the usual routines that can help us when we are bereaved – like going to school, or work and doing activities that distract us – might not be available. When someone has died it is natural to worry more about the health of others that you love. Knowing that the coronavirus risk is there can be really hard for everyone.
There are no easy answers to any of this. You can only do your best to support each other though a difficult time;
- Encourage your child to use the phone, facetime, zoom to speak to family and friends. Send each other cards and messages -to share your feelings and support each other.
- If you and / or your child cannot be at a funeral do something special at the same time; light a candle, read out a poem, play some music.
Some services have been able to be ‘live streamed’ so people who can’t be there can watch.
- Plan a memorial service / get together for when this is allowed. Start gathering memories, photos and other things you would like to include.
- Keep to some routines if you can like regular meal and bedtimes.
- Reassure your child that most people who get COVID-19 recover quite quickly.
- Remind them of the important things we are all doing to keep the risks low;
- Washing hands regularly for at least 20 seconds
- Using face coverings
- Following social distancing rules
- Self isolating if we have symptoms.
CRUSE bereavement charity have a lot of information about bereavement during COVID-19 *here*.
‘As for Grief’
As for grief, you'll find it comes in waves. When the ship is first wrecked, you're drowning, with wreckage all around you. Everything floating around you reminds you of the beauty and the magnificence of the ship that was, and is no more. And all you can do is float. You find some piece of the wreckage and you hang on for a while. Maybe it's some physical thing. Maybe it's a happy memory or a photograph. Maybe it's a person who is also floating. For a while, all you can do is float. Stay alive.
In the beginning, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy. They come 10 seconds apart and don't even give you time to catch your breath. All you can do is hang on and float. After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you'll find the waves are still 100 feet tall, but they come further apart. When they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out. But in between, you can breathe, you can function. You never know what's going to trigger the grief. It might be a song, a picture, a street intersection, the smell of a cup of coffee. It can be just about anything...and the wave comes crashing. But in between waves, there is life.
Somewhere down the line, and it's different for everybody, you find that the waves are only 80 feet tall. Or 50 feet tall. And while they still come, they come further apart. You can see them coming. An anniversary, a birthday, or Christmas. You can see it coming, for the most part, and prepare yourself. And when it washes over you, you know that somehow you will, again, come out the other side. Soaking wet, sputtering, still hanging on to some tiny piece of the wreckage, but you'll come out.
Take it from an old guy. The waves never stop coming, and somehow you don't really want them to. But you learn that you'll survive them. And other waves will come. And you'll survive them too.
- I Miss You: A First Look at Death by Pat Thomas
- The Goodbye Book by Todd Parr
- When Dinosaurs Die by Laurene Krasny Brown and Marc Brown
- Always and Forever by Alan Duranti
- Badgers Parting Gifts by Susan Varley
- A Huge Bag of Worries by Virginia Ironside
- What on Earth Do You Do When Someone Dies? by Trevor Romain
- Milly’s Bug Nut by Jill Janey
- Michael Rosen’s SAD BOOK by Michael Rosen
- Finding a Way Through When Someone Close Has Died by Pat Mood & Lesley Whittaker
*Click here* to search Norfolk Libraries catalogue for books on grief and loss.
Very small children will not understand that someone has died – but will ‘miss’ them.
They may be very upset or quiet and withdrawn.
They may seem to ‘look’ for the person.
Little ones are very tuned in to how the people who care for them are feeling.
It will help if you can;
- Try to keep to the same routines and patterns in their day. When things have changed keeping what you can the same will help them feel more secure.
- Try not to have too many different people caring for them.
- Hold them and comfort them as much as they need.
- Talk about their feelings – ‘I can see you are feeling sad’ or ‘you are missing Nanny today.’
It is fine to show you own feelings in front of your little one. It is good to explain ‘Mummy is crying because she is sad that Daddy died’. However if you are feeling very distressed it might be a bit scary for children to be around. Try and have someone else there to help out for the really bad moments if you can. If you do not have this take some deep, slow breaths to try and calm yourself.
Pre-schoolers will not understand that death lasts forever. They can get very confused by the idea that the person is ‘still dead’ and don’t understand that a person’s body has stopped working. They will miss the person and show their feelings by how they behave.
They will want to talk about what has happened over and over again. They may tell others about it – everyone from their teacher to someone in the supermarket queue.
They might do pretend play about what has happened. This can be hard to watch but your child will be making sense of what happened.
- Routines and boundaries are important ways to help your child feel safe. It can be tempting to let this slide because you are all having a bad time but this can make them feel more wobbly.
- Repeating simple, straightforward explanations of what happened will help them begin to understand. ‘Grandad’s heart stopped working, the Dr’s couldn’t make him better and he died. It is very sad because we can’t see him again and we miss him.’
- Books about death and dying can really help little ones make sense of what has happened and the feelings they have. Your local library can help with this.
- Point out the difference between dead and alive – for example; if you see a dead fly talk about how it can’t move, won’t feel hungry, hot or cold – because it has died.
Over the primary school years children develop more understanding of what it means when someone dies. By the time they are about 8 or 9 they will understand that death is permanent and happens to everyone eventually. This can make them feel anxious and worried that someone else will die and they will have no-one to look after them.
Children this age do a lot of ‘magical thinking’ this can mean that they are frightened by the idea of spooks and ghosts.
They can often think that they were in some way responsible for the death ‘I didn’t kiss Dad goodbye. Dad had a car accident. I made it happen.’
- Keep to routines and boundaries. It can be tempting to let this slide because you are all having a bad time but having some things stay the same will help them feel safe and secure.
- Talk to them about what has happened – give them time to tell you what they think so you can clear up any confusion they may have.
- Reassure them that most people die when they are very old. Remind them of all the people that love them that would always make sure they were looked after.
- Help them find ways to relax and reduce worries – mindfulness techniques can help with this. *Click here* to read more.
This is a strange age for children to be bereaved of someone they are close to. It is a time when there brain is going through a period of huge change. *Click here* to read more about the teenage brain.
By around this age children and young people have an adult understanding of what ‘dead’ means; they know it is permanent and they know it will happen to everyone.
Young people may find it hard to find ways to talk about how they feel. They are beginning to want more independence from parents – but grief can make this feel difficult and confusing.
Friends have a big influence and young people don’t like to feel ‘different’ from their peers. They may feel guilty that they want to have fun. Teenagers may act out and take risks.
They may question the ‘meaning of life’ and struggle with their lack of control over life and death.
- Keep boundaries and routines in place. This can help them feel less ‘out of control.’
- Encourage them to talk – if not to you, to other family, friends or teachers. If they find this hard they could write a journal, paint or draw.
- Exercise can really help to relieve the ‘pressure’ of all those feelings. *Click here* to look at the 5 ways to wellbeing.
- Share your own feelings. Show that you are reaching out for help when you need it, and using healthy coping strategies to get through a hard time. *Click here* to read more.
- Let your child know it is okay to distract themselves and have fun with friends and family.
Who Can Help?
You can contact the Healthy Child Programme by calling Just One Number on 0300 300 0123 or texting Parentline on 07520631590. Our opening hours are 8am-6pm Monday-Friday (excluding bank holidays) and 9am-1pm on Saturdays.
If you are 11-19 you can text ChatHealth on 07480635060 for confidential advice from one of our team.
You can speak to other Norfolk parents and carers by clicking our online community forum below.