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20th November 2020

GRIEF. It is tough enough for adults to cope with – even though we understand that death is an inescapable part of life – so for children the loss of a loved one can be even more frightening and bewildering. Losing a loved one is never easy, regardless of our age, so we may have an urge to shield children from sadness after the death of a beloved family member, friend or pet. Sometimes people mistakenly believe a child bereaved at a young age will not be greatly affected, as they cannot understand the full implications of death. But experts say we should be open and honest about death and equip them with coping tools and strategies to help them handle loss. For many people, the death of a parent, caregiver, sibling or grandparent will be an experience they are faced with early in life. Sadly, by the age of 16, it is estimated that one in 20 young people will have experienced the death of one or both parents. Therefore, to mark Children’s Grief Awareness Week UK (19-25 November) Tovey Bros has looked at ways we can help children through these tremendously difficult times.

Open the lines of communication.

Your child may have questions to which it’s best to give real answers; avoid euphemisms like their loved one has ‘gone to sleep’ which could make a young child afraid to close their eyes. Parents can also talk about family beliefs about where the soul goes after death and explain in simple terms why death happens in the first place. Make sure your child understands that the deceased is not in pain once they have died. This knowledge can be especially crucial for a child who is grieving an unexpected or violent death, or a death from a terminal illness.

Stick to routine when possible.

Loss, whether abrupt or expected, can interrupt usual schedules and trigger stress. One way to ease anxiety for kids is to maintain their regular bedtimes and mealtimes to provide a sense of normality during a difficult time.  Simple kid distractions, like encouraging them to play with friends or relatives, will help change their mindset and assure them that life continues, even after a sad event.

Prepare your child for what’s ahead.

Depending on their age, you may want to include your child in the funeral or even let them help with some of the arrangements. Inclusion and participation can give them a sense of control when facing a frightening situation. Explain ahead of time exactly what will happen in terms of the coffin, the cremation or burial process or anything else that might be unfamiliar to them. Children may want to see the body of the person who died to say a final goodbye or to begin to understand the reality of death.

Acknowledge feelings and provide comfort.

If you are also reeling from the loss, don’t be afraid to show your child that you’re upset. One of the ways you can help a young person process their own grief is to be open about your emotions by normalising them.

Talk about the deceased.

Memorial services often include sharing memories and celebrating the life of the person who has died. Continuing this practice at home and infusing traditions that honour the family member or pet can also help a child cope with the loss. They need to see that grief includes missing someone after they die and being sad when we can’t see them or talk to them. They also need to understand that saying their name and talking about them is how we keep our loved ones in our world for the rest of our lives.

The outbreak of Covid-19 means that many aspects of children’s lives are changing. Schooling has been erratic, many parents are working from home and families are having to spend time apart when they would like to be together. The news is dominated by the virus and the effect it is having. Many children will have questions and worries about the virus, but those who have experienced the death of someone important or who have an ill family member might be particularly worried. Young people who have lost a loved one during the pandemic probably won’t have the chance to make the choices they normally could and may have to say goodbye in a different way.

James Tovey added: “Children and young people need to be given the opportunity to grieve as any adult would. Trying to ignore or avert the child’s grief is not protective and can be damaging. Children and young people, regardless of their age, need to be encouraged to talk about how they are feeling and supported to understand their emotions.”

Children can show grief through these different ways:

  • Cognitively – they may have difficulty concentrating, making decisions or become easily confused. They might experience nightmares, a lack of motivation or a decline in school performance and self-esteem.
  • Emotionally – children tend to move in and out of the grieving process, from crying one minute to playing the next. They may also be unsettled or express anxiety about the safety of others.
  • Physically – many children feel sick more often, experience headaches and stomach aches, a lack of energy or hyperactivity. Many also notice changes in their eating and sleeping patterns.
  • Spiritually – they may show curiosity about death and dying and ask a lot of questions; they may also start questioning why this has happened and where their loved one might be now.
  • Socially – it is common for children to either withdraw from family and friends or become more dependant and clingy. They may also attempt to take on the role of an older sibling or adult who has died.
  • Behaviourally – children may show more challenging or demanding behaviour as they try to get more care or reassurance from you; regressing signs could include a return to bed-wetting. Themes of death may show up in their drawings or play.

For further support visit:

  • Child Bereavement UK have guidance films and information to support families and schools in supporting children during the outbreak, including staying in touch with someone who is seriously ill, supporting bereaved children during difficult times and supporting pupils.
  • Winston’s Wish have produced guidance on topics including talking to bereaved children about coronavirus, telling a child that someone has died from coronavirus, and saying goodbye when a funeral isn’t possible.
  • Cruse Bereavement Care have produced some tips about talking to children among their wider resources about grief and coronavirus

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