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Bereavement in Children & Adolescents

How children grieve

Children pick up a great deal from the attitudes and behaviour of the people around them. If they are excluded in bereavement on the grounds that it is too distressing, they will still pick up on the distress of adults. Puzzled by what is going on and feeling that it must be something awful if they are not allowed to be part of it, they form an attitude towards death they may take with them right into adulthood. Unfortunately, this attitude may mean that they will be poorly prepared for grief in their adult lives.

But how do you begin to explain to a child what death is? How can you help a child to grieve? These are hard issues to address, especially if the person closest to the bereaved child is suffering the same loss and is not therefore in the best of conditions to handle the feelings of anyone else.

Ideally, the way forward is to acknowledge the shared loss and grieve together.

Explaining what has happened and how to help

Even though children may not understand the meaning of death until they are three or four years old, they feel the loss of close relatives in much the same way as adults. It is clear that, even from infancy, children grieve and feel great distress.

However, they have a different experience of time from adults and may go through the stages of mourning quite rapidly. In their early school years children may feel responsible for the death of a close relative and so may need to be reassured. Young people may not speak of their grief for fear of adding extra burdens to the grown-ups around them; including them in communal grieving, such as the making of funeral arrangements, can help.

We suggest that you tell children as quickly as possible when there is a death in the family. The news should be broken by the person closest to them in as simple a manner as possible. Try not to use too many euphemisms. Children should be encouraged to talk about the deceased, and any questions answered briefly but truthfully.

Children at the Funeral Service

You may be undecided about whether to allow a child to go to the funeral. The answer will of course depend on the child. Often our first reaction is to try to spare children an upsetting experience, but attending the funeral may help them to come to terms with the death. We do not advise that you force children to attend if they do not want to do so. However, not being allowed to go may cause them to worry about what is happening and why they are being kept away.

If you take children to a funeral we recommend that you prepare them beforehand by telling them what to expect. Someone close to the children should stay with them throughout the service.

Memorials & Keepsakes

It may help children to identify a “memorial” to the person who has died, especially if they were very close. This need not be an official memorial but simply a thing or place which can be associated with the deceased. For example, a favourite tree in the garden or a seat in the park, a simple keepsake such as a vase or a watch, or a photograph can help children remember the loved one and deal with the loss.