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Jules Kirk, Therapeutic Services Manager, answers some common questions about how to support children after the death of a loved one.

Author: Jules Kirk, Therapeutic Services Manager

Date: November 2023

What is child bereavement?

A child bereavement is when a child or young person experiences the death of a loved one. This could be the death of a grandparent, parent, sibling or other close relative or friend.

At what age can a child understand death?

All children understand death in their own unique way. How a child understands death depends on many factors, not just their age. For example, a child’s understanding can be affected by their ability to express their emotions, their wider family and social dynamics, as well as their culture and beliefs.

Very young children

Very young children, developmentally 2 years old or younger, have no understanding of death. They can experience feelings of loss and insecurity however because a significant person is now missing from their lives. At this age, children may become more clingy and cry more often following a significant death. They may also regress to earlier behavioural milestones. At this young age, it’s important to offer lots of cuddles and hugs, and maintain a child’s normal routine as much as possible.

2-5 year olds

Children with a developmental age of 2-5 years old don’t understand what ‘forever’ means, so they may believe that death is reversible. They may talk about the person who has died as if they are still alive. It may take time for them to grasp their loved one has died, and you may find yourself repeating the same explanation often. Children of this age can feel insecure and frightened by change. They may appear more withdrawn, or search for the person who has died. Reassurance and encouragement can help. You can also help them to express their feelings in healthy such as with drawing, talking or exercise.

5-11 year olds

A child who is developmentally 5 to 11 years old has a growing understanding that death is permanent. Children of this age can worry about their own health and safety, or that of others, following a significant death. They may feel anxious about being separated from important people in their life, such as when they go to school. They may express their feelings through behaviour that is out of character. They may have angry outbursts, or suppress their emotions to feel like they are protecting the adults around them. It’s important to give clear and honest answers to a child’s questions following a death. It’s okay to say you don’t know the answer. Listen to them and help them to name their feelings. You could talk about death as a part of life. You could talk about the changes in the seasons whilst on a walk or in the garden and how all living things have a life cycle. You could also involve children of this age in planning a funeral or help them remember their loved one through talking, activities and family traditions.

11 years and above

Older children, developmentally aged 11 and over, can understand that death is irreversible. They can feel very intense emotions such as sadness, guilt, anger and fear. They may become isolated and depressed, or feel less confident after a bereavement. To help a child of this age after a death, offer praise and encouragement. Try to include the child in family activities and discussions, making time to talk and listen. You can talk to them about their grief, or leave information around for them to read. Children often learn to express themselves by watching the adults around them. Most children will recognise that you are grieving too. Seeing you get upset and then recover your composure is helpful in reassuring a child that it is okay to cry and that they can recover too. It’s important to remember that the timescale for grieving may be different for every child.

How do I talk to a child about the death of a loved one?

It’s natural to worry about talking to a child about the death of a loved one. You may be worried about what to say – or not say. You might not know how to start a conversation. Being open and honest with children about what has happened is more helpful than keeping them in the dark to try and protect them. Children will often fill in the gaps if they don’t have the facts. Sometimes, children’s stories about what happened to their loved one do not always make sense, perhaps because they have connected seemingly unrelated events or facts. Helping them develop a more accurate, age-appropriate, understanding around the events leading up to the death, can help them to accept the reality of the loss.

Try to use simple language to talk about death

Try to use simple language to deliver the basic facts about what has happened. People often use the terms ‘passed away’, ‘gone away’ or ‘gone to sleep’ after someone’s death. At Treetops, our counsellors recommend using the words ‘died’ and ‘death’, as children can interpret information in a very literal way. Euphemisms can lead to confusion and may influence a child’s feelings around a burial or cremation.
Allow time for your child to ask questions about the death of a loved one. Give them the information they are seeking but don’t overload them with extra details that they don’t ask for.
Be aware that children may appear to move quickly away from the conversation and ask something entirely unrelated, like going out to play. This is completely normal and their way of managing the situation.

How can the death of a parent, grandparent or loved one affect a child?

Just like adults, children and young people who have been bereaved may find themselves struggling with a powerful range of emotions. It’s important to remember that everyone grieves in their own unique way. There are many different feelings and emotions that a grieving child might experience. You may also notice changes in a child’s behaviour after a death. These are all completely normal reactions to grief. A grieving child may:
  • Appear more tired or not sleep well
  • Not want to get involved in everyday things. They may not want to go to school or college – or hang out with their friends
  • Be forgetful or unable to concentrate
  • Get upset by simple things like hearing a song on the radio or seeing a photo of a loved one
  • Want to be closer to their family and loved ones
  • Argue or cry more often

How can I help a child after a death?

Following a death, we experience a range of emotions, and these fluctuate in intensity throughout the day. For children they might be experiencing both feelings and a level of intensity of emotions that they have not encountered before. They may not have the words to express their feelings so may act them out through their behaviour.

Children need ‘time off’ from the intensity of their emotions

Children need ‘time off’ from the intensity of these emotions, and often move in and out of these feelings more rapidly than adults. We call this ‘puddle jumping’. For example, your child might be in floods of tears one minute, and then in the next moment ask whether they can go out to play or what’s for dinner. Adults tend to be able to tolerate greater amounts of distress and so can find the sudden shift in a grieving child surprising at first. You can support your child when someone dies by trying to name the emotions they are experiencing. For example, “I can see that you are feeling angry” or “It sounds like you are feeling more worried since X died.” You could find healthy ways to help your child express their emotions. For example, through talking, physical exercise, breathing techniques, or creative activities like drawing or writing. Find ways to talk about your experiences of grief within the family. This can be as simple as saying, “I’m feeling sad since X died”; or “I’m not sleeping as well since X died.”
Reassure your child that moving forward doesn’t mean forgetting.
Continue to talk about their loved one in everyday conversation. It can be more helpful to think of the time following a death as ‘learning to live alongside your grief’ rather than trying to ‘get over it’.

Support your child to return to any activities they used to enjoy

Offer ways of continuing a bond with their loved one through everyday activities or by creating a ritual that helps to remember them. This could be things like visiting the grave or continuing to do something they used to do together. It might also be baking the cake their loved one always made or watching their favourite film. Support your child to return to any activities they used to enjoy or to try something new if they prefer. They may need more reassurance, a friend or family member to go with them or to start by going for shorter periods of time. Remind your child it is okay to feel happy sometimes, this does not mean they have forgotten their loved one.

How do I know if my child needs bereavement counselling after a death?

It’s important to remember that grief is a normal reaction to loss, for children as well as adults. But sometimes children need extra support, such as bereavement counselling, to help them deal with their loss. You may notice that your child is struggling to do normal, day to day things such as going to school, or being able to sleep over an extended period of time. You might notice that grief is having a significant impact on their emotional and mental health.
You know your child best. If you have concerns that you would like to discuss with a member of our team, please contact us for more advice.

What is bereavement counselling for a child?

Sometimes a child who’s experienced the death of a significant loved one can continue to struggle with their grief. They may not feel able to share the way they are feeling with a parent or family member. Bereavement counselling sessions can help a bereaved child or young person to understand, explore and cope with their feelings and emotions in a supportive environment.

One to one counselling

At Treetops, we offer one-to-one sessions with a trained counsellor in a room especially designed for children. These sessions can include talking or doing an activity, such as playing a game or doing some art and craft, to encourage a bereaved child to express how they are feeling.

Non-talking therapy programme

We also offer a non-talking therapy programme for groups of bereaved children or young people called the Mollitiam Project. The programme helps children who might find the idea of one-to-one counselling too daunting and would prefer to use other non-talking means.
The programme takes place over 8 weeks. Groups are made up of between 6-12 young people and include activities such as animal therapy, drumming therapy, art therapy, yoga therapy and complementary therapy.
Each week has a theme related to grief and helps the children and young people understand what they are going through and manage their feelings better.

Preparing a child for a funeral or cremation

The decision over whether or not to allow a child to attend a funeral or cremation may seem straight forward or could be a cause for anguish if you are worried about how your child will cope. Armed with enough knowledge, most children are capable of deciding if they want to attend the funeral of a loved one. Even young children can feel comforted when they are older, knowing they did attend a funeral, even if they don’t remember it.
We encourage you to explain that funeral or cremation is a chance to mark their loved one’s life and an opportunity to say goodbye.
You could talk about what happens at a funeral and what is involved. Explain that it’s possible that people might cry and get upset, including yourself and them. Reassure them that you will both be okay and it’s okay to show these feelings. Give your child plenty of time to ask questions.

Involve your child in planning

Where possible, involve your child in the plans and create an opportunity for them to be involved, even if they choose not to attend. They could give ideas, write or draw something that could be read out or put in the coffin, help choose flowers or music. If your child does want to attend, work out a plan for what will happen if they find it too upsetting and wish to leave. Let them know who will take them outside.

How can I become a child bereavement counsellor at Treetops?

At Treetops, we have a bereavement counselling team made up of qualified counsellors, student counsellors, and trained support volunteers.
We are always looking for qualified counsellors (with a minimum of a Diploma in Counselling) to join us on a volunteer basis.
This is an ideal opportunity for newly qualified counsellors looking to gain valuable experience, or for those who are building up their hours towards accreditation. Counsellors in any stage of their career would be most welcome.
We also run a student placement scheme for students in the second year of their training. We have two intakes a year in spring and autumn. All our counsellors have an interview and attend a two-day counselling induction training which includes sessions on working with bereavement, loss and life-limiting illness. There is additional training specifically to support work with children and young people from a trauma-informed perspective. All volunteers work with at least two clients a week. We provide supervision, monthly workshops, insurance and DBS checks.

Supporting a bereaved child in school

We offer a training programme for primary and secondary schools including advice and guidance on how to support children when a loved one dies.
The programme helps teachers and school support staff to better understand how children and young people comprehend death, how to recognise common reactions to a bereavement, and how to support bereaved children.
The training also includes empathic listening, and appropriate language and activities to do in school that can help.
There is a charge for this training which allows us to offer our hospice services free of charge to our counselling clients and patients.

Support for you as a parent or carer

Sometimes you do need to be strong after a bereavement and there will be times when you need to hold it together for the sake of your children.
However, it is very important to be kind to yourself following a significant death and recognise that you are grieving too. We believe that helping you, is helping your child.
We encourage you not to ignore your own feelings and emotions and to seek and accept help from those around you. Taking time for ‘you’ is a great way to show your child that it is okay to look after yourself, especially during difficult times.

Where do we support?

Our counselling service is available to all users of Treetops Hospice services and children and young people registered with a GP practice in Derby city, Southern Derbyshire or Erewash.
The bereavement experienced by a child or young person may have occurred at any time in the past. Many of our referrals are in relation to unexpected and/or traumatic bereavement. The service is available for as long as the child, or young person need them in relation to dealing with their loss. Once sessions end there is always the possibility of taking up further support should the need arise. All our counselling services are provided free of charge and are not means-tested. You can contact us if you are a professional, family members, or a bereaved child or young person.

Care and support outside our catchment area

If you live outside our catchment areas, you can find other sources of help and advice about child bereavement on our website.
You could also try contacting your local hospice for more bereavement support for children and adults.