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Supporting bereaved children

Maxine Forrest is a working childminder and PACEY Local Facilitator. She recently attended a training on child bereavement and shares her experiences in this blog post.

People hope it is something they will never have to deal with. A topic not many people want to discuss. But since the beginning of the year I seem to have heard of a number of children whose parents have suddenly passed away.

When one little boy I care for suddenly came out with ‘my grandma is going to die’. I was a little shocked – nobody in his family had mentioned anything. I sensitively questioned a little further, asking things such as ‘who had said that?’ and ‘is grandma poorly?’

His response was that his sister had told him that grandma would die soon because she was old and that is what they said at school. I reassured him, and said he would need to ask Mummy or Daddy because his sister might not know what was really happening.

That evening I spoke to his mum who said an out of school club play worker had died. They did not want to give the children too much information so they said she was old. I felt that this could have been handled so differently and that was why I decided to organise a training session on how to support children who had suffered a bereavement. The course covered valuable information, and offered much food for thought.

What might a bereaved a child understand about what's happened?

Babies and very young children

  • No real understanding of what death is.
  • Are aware of the person being missing and may grieve the absence.
  • May react by increased crying or by becoming unresponsive, not eating or sleeping.
  • May look for or ask for the missing person. May wait for them to return.
  • Will be affected by the sadness of those left behind.

Pre-school up to about 6

  • Have a curiosity about death but think it is reversible.
  • Could view death as a form of sleeping.
  • Have ‘magical thinking’ about death, mixing reality and fantasy.
  • May see themselves as a cause of what has happened, feel guilty, and think it is something they have done or said.
  • May think the person will come back if they are well behaved/good.
  • May have worries about what will happen to them such as who will look after them.
  • Are affected by others’ sadness.
  • Cannot express their thoughts and feelings verbally so may appear through behaviours such as aggression, unable to sleep or regression.

School age to approximately 12

  • Begin to understand death is irreversible and happens to everyone.
  • Often interested in details, such as how and why, as well as what happens to a body after death.
  • May go through a range of emotions and worry about  their own or others’ mortality.
  • May have difficulty expressing their feelings (as above).
  • May worry about who will take care of them and whether they were to blame for the death.

Cultural differences with regard to a death

When thinking about bereavement it can be very easy to think that everyone goes through the same range of emotions, but everyone is individual and will deal with things in their own way. As well as this, religious and cultural beliefs about death can also impact on bereavement. Each religion and culture will have their own way.

Things to consider:

  • How differing religions and cultures deal with death practices such as who does or does not attend a funeral, maybe because of timing. How they are expected to behave. How they are expected to dress
  • How much involvement a child has had
  • Differences in expectations after a death. Is the child expected to take over a family member’s role within the family? Such as care caring for siblings or taking over cooking duties
  • Expectations with regard to ways of expressing their grief as well as length of time this should take
  • What they believe about life after death.

Helping a child cope

One thing that was mentioned on the course really made me think about how we talk to children once a death has happened. Quite often we want to shield a child from all the associated hurt and upset, but children are very adept at picking up on feelings emotions of those around them. It must be very confusing for a child to see people grieving but at the same time being told that things are ok.

One example of trying to protect a child was a grandma telling her granddaughter (after the death of the child’s mother) that “each night mummy would slide down the moon to give her a kiss”. Each night the child would not go to bed as she was waiting for this to happen.

It’s a real example of how saying something well-meaning can cause more confusion.

Children should be told about death in simple terms according to their developmental stage. Use words such as ‘died’ rather than ‘gone to sleep’ – remember, to a child, sleep is temporary and you reawaken. That’s not the case with death, of course.

Another thing to bear in mind is that children do not reflect on their thoughts. As it comes into their heads, they will ask the question, and this can be repeated numerous times as they try to process what has happened.

I would certainly recommend anyone working with children takes a course on supporting bereaved children – as you never know when  you’ll need the skills. It is a difficult subject to discuss, but one we should not shy away from if we want the best for the children we work with. One of the most important things you can do to help a child through this time is to allow them talk, answering their questions as honestly as possible.

Maxine took her course with the Leeds Bereavement Forum. PACEY also recommends Child Bereavement Trust UK, helping childcare professionals to better understand and meet the needs of grieving families and offer training to support them.

Institute of Health Visiting also has some useful information that can be found here.

Find out more about supporting children's emotional wellbeing here.

Find out more with our practice guide: Bereavement 

About the author

Maxine has been childminding for three years but has worked in various early years roles for the last 16. She has been a facilitator for PACEY for nearly three years and enjoys helping other childminders, offering advice and arranging training sessions. She has recently completed a BA (Hons) in Early Childhood studies as well as gaining Early Years Professional status. When not working she enjoys meeting up with friends and family, going on holiday to explore new places both home and abroad, reading, and going to the theatre.

Comments
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Maxine Forrest
I would certainly recommend training from your local bereavement support team for all who work with children.
28/04/2016 13:50:58

Catherine
Very interesting. We automatically assume we would know what to say. Found it informative
11/11/2015 18:26:57

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