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  • Writer's pictureSuzanne Jones

‘But, I really miss them’

Updated: Aug 21, 2022

Grief is unfortunately a common experience for all of us including children and young people, be it grief at the death of a family member or beloved pet or grief at the loss of someone close who leaves their lives for example through parent/carer separation, hospitalisation or prison. Often, children and young people experience grief at the same time as the adults around them who are also struggling to manage their grief which can make supporting the child in their grief really challenging. It’s important that we all acknowledge that grief as an emotion is normal when we lose someone, it’s OK to feel sad, angry and/or confused and miss the person who has gone from our lives.

It is also important for adults to be aware that children and young people’s understanding and response to loss is quite different to adults and is different at different stages of life. For example, younger children can appear to struggle with the permanency of loss and death and may think the person will come back. As such, they may ask repeated questions about where someone is or when they will be back. Older children may feel a sense of responsibility that in some way they are to blame. They may also appear fine one minute then distraught the next – often called ‘oscillating grief’. It can be difficult for adults to reconcile the ‘fine’ moments where the child may appear to be playing happily with the sudden onset of upset.

An example:

I was asked for involvement for a Year 6 pupil at a primary school, Jo whose Mum had recently died. His school described that his behaviour had become challenging, staff were finding it hard to manage his angry outbursts and his Dad was finding it hard to manage Jo’s upset when struggling to manage his own grief.

I met with Jo who told me that no one talks about his Mum or what had happened at home or at school. He described that his Dad is miserable and Jo worries that his Dad cannot cope without his Mum, he told me his Dad is struggling to shop and organise meals for Jo and his siblings. Jo also described that he felt some people at school and some of his neighbours were deliberately avoiding him and were talking and whispering about him and his Mum. He told me he feels ashamed about his outbursts as he knows it would have upset his Mum and does not want to worry his Dad. Jo described that he feels so angry sometimes that everything seems to be carrying on as normal.

I reassured Jo that a range of feelings in response to grief are ‘normal’, and we developed a plan together for him and the adults around him. We discussed what he wanted others to know and how he would want them to respond, where he could go if upset, how he could ‘excuse’ himself and what daily routines he wanted to maintain to help him such as walking the family dog. Jo also suggested that he would talk with his Dad about developing a plan to support the whole family. We also discussed beginning a memory box which Jo felt he wanted to do as a family.

Tips for helping children and young people manage grief or loss

Develop a plan

Develop a plan for adults to support the child or young person at home and at school. If possible include the child/young person (dependent on their age) in developing the plan, ask what they want others to know about their loss. At school, after the plan has been developed and agreed with the pupil ensure staff are aware so that there is consistency in approach/response.

It can be helpful if the plan includes:

· If upset what is the most helpful way for adults to react, for example, ignore/give them space or comfort with a hug or allow them a special toy for example.

· If upset where she/he goes, who with and what he/she does. Therefore, it may be helpful to have an identified space at home and at school with a box of activities that she/he can access when upset. For older children, it can be helpful to develop a folder of calming activities with them including for example, word searches, dot to dots, colouring etc.

· Plan a ‘time to talk’ - children/young people often have worries/questions after they have lost someone close to them - plan for a time to talk, to share any worries or questions, this could be in school and/or at home. At home, as worries and questions are often keen to come out at bedtime it can be helpful to book in a time in advance of bedtime, for example, just after dinner to share questions/worries.

Discuss loss and death

Sharing books is a really powerful way to approach ‘difficult’ topics with children (topics we as adults find difficult to discuss!). The little parachutes website is a useful resource that lists picture books that ‘help children cope with their emotions and deal positively with experiences, situations and issues’, the website includes sections on death and parents in prison for example.

I have found that older children (and adults) find the images in Michael Rosen’s Sad book particularly relatable. For younger children, Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson can lead to a great deal of discussion with children about change, loss and upset. When working with children like Jo I have found Chocolate Chipped by Shelley Gilbert and Vicky Baruch helpful as children can often feel they are the only person who has experienced such a loss.

Children are naturally curious about death, don’t be afraid to discuss death, if the child/young person wants/needs to talk, adults can support by:

  • Offering to listen and help when they want to talk. If they need to break off the discussion respect their wish and they or you can ask to talk again at another time.

  • Answer questions honestly but in language they can understand without offering more than is necessary for them to hear.

And, do not panic if they act out death in play, don’t be afraid to play too – play is a way for children to develop their understanding of the world around them including death and loss.

Enable remembering

Children and young people often share a worry that they will ‘forget’ the person they have lost but at the same time worry that by discussing them they will upset those around them.

To enable remembering it can be helpful to develop a box/memory book that can be personalised to the individual and that can be kept in school or at home dependent on where the child/young person wants to keep it and where they want to access it. Take time to develop the box, look through digital photos and select photos to print out and put in the box. Along with the printed photos, it can also be helpful to choose items with a special association with the person such as a favourite coffee mug, pen or a piece of clothing that smells of the person - smells are very personal to individuals.

It can also be helpful to discuss plans for family celebrations and other key days such as birthdays and Mothers/Fathers’ Day, discuss a way to celebrate for example, even in a small way such as having a ‘toast’.

For further information/resources:

There are a range of organisations that provide useful resources. For example, have useful resources and supportive ideas for working with children and families who have suffered bereavement. They may be able to send a "Grief Relief Kit," to the family or setting with a number of resources.

Childhood Bereavement Network

Child Bereavement Trust

Cruse Bereavement Care

Winston’s Wish

Thank you for reading – I hope this provides a little insight into bereavement and loss and some ways to support children and young people who are experiencing/have experienced loss.

Do look through the list of services and get in touch for further information.

If you or someone close to you needs urgent help you must contact local services.

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