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18 January 2021

Death series: helping a child through bereavement

There are many ways in which a child or young person can respond to the death of someone close to them. In this article, Sharon Heselton, a wills, trust and probate lawyer from B P Collins and a bereavement volunteer explores their range of emotions and how best to help.

Shock

For many young people, shock is the initial response when learning that someone close to them has died. However, it can be displayed in many ways. Some may find it difficult to acknowledge the news, others might start to cry uncontrollably, whilst some might want to do a little work to take their mind off things, like tidying up their room. Shock is a very natural emotion to experience, and it allows the child time to process the news in a way that suits them and acts as a short-term barrier before reality starts to hit.

How to help:

  • Try not to appear startled if the child’s reaction seems unsuitable to you.
  • Reassure them that any feelings of shock and the inability to accept that someone close to them has passed away, is completely normal.
  • Explain that someone has died in a clear and simple way, that suits their age and level of comprehension, so they fully understand what has happened.
  • Let the child know that you are there to listen and to support them and answer any of their questions.

Denial

A child may respond to a bereavement by being in denial, as it puts off accepting the fact that their loved one will not be coming back.

How to help:

  • Recognise that bereaved children need time to process the death and they may not seem to acknowledge that the person has died.
  • Have an open conversation with the child and reassure them that they can ask any questions relating to the death.
  • If the child seems to be looking for the person who has died, explain, at a level that is appropriate to them, that they are no longer around.

Anger

Some children may find it difficult to talk about their grief. This can be exasperating and could lead to feelings of anger, which can be directed at themselves or others if they believe they contributed in some way to the death or didn’t do enough to prevent it. This anger may also be targeted at the person who has died, particularly if they didn’t get the chance to say goodbye or they feel abandoned.

How to help:

  • Reassure the child that it is fine to feel angry.
  • Encourage them to vent their emotions by doing a physical activity or direct their frustration towards a cushion or pillow.
  • Be a constant presence and show that you will be there for them at all times, even if they direct their anger towards you. 

Negotiating

Children may appeal for their loved one to return in exchange for a promise to act a certain way. This can offer a distraction from the reality and pain of their bereavement. 

How to help:

  • Explain in an age appropriate way that there is nothing that can be done to bring their loved one back.
  • Explain that they do not need to be faultless, in order to reverse what has happened.

Guilt

Children may feel guilty if they believe that the death was their fault, or they feel angry at the deceased person for leaving them. Guilt can also happen when they find themselves having a moment of fun or forgetting about their loved one for a while.

How to help:

  • Discuss why they feel responsible and explain to the child that the death isn’t their fault in any way. Nothing they did or didn’t do contributed to what happened.
  • The child may not always explain how they feel, so it’s vital to look out for signs of anxiety and reassure when needed.
  • Encourage the child or young person to talk about their thoughts and feelings as and when they feel they need to.

Depression

Depression can start when the reality hits that their loved one isn’t coming back, no matter what they do. They may lose their appetite, feel sluggish or lose interest in things. Anxiety around losing other loved ones may also lead to depression too.

How to help:

  • Depression can knock a child’s confidence so remind them that they are valued and loved. 
  • Encourage the child to take part in activities that interested them previously and to catch up with their friends when they feel up to it.  
  • If you are worried about their wellbeing, contact a GP or bereavement counsellor.

Acceptance

Children who have lost a loved one will need time to finally accept that they’re not coming back. To reach this stage, the introduction of a routine and “normal life” is vital, as their bereavement will have already dramatically changed their lives and caused a huge amount of unsettlement, therefore any other alterations are likely to increase their sense of turmoil.

How to help:

  • Offer reassurance that it is absolutely fine to enjoy life again and that this will not be disrespectful to their loved one who has passed away. It’s also okay if they don’t think about them all the time too.
  • Create activities that will help the child to remember their loved one who has died if they wish to do so.

The guidance in this article shouldn’t be regarded as a substitute for the advice from a trained counsellor. If a child you know has been affected by a bereavement, you can contact Child Bereavement UK on 0800 028 8840 or Hope Again on 0808 808 1677.

For further advice on how to best help children and young people who may be struggling, please contact 01753 889995 or email enquiries@bpcollins.co.uk.

Sharon Heselton

Sharon Heselton

Tel: 01753 279000 | 07341 566325

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