Children’s responses to bereavement
Just as adults do, children experience shock and disbelief and may not take everything in at once. They will assimilate as little or as much as they can bear at any one time. A child is likely to need repeated explanations with pauses to enable them to digest the information, and they may want time alone. Tell them what is likely to happen next and who is available to help them. If they have met professional staff, be clear as to when they can see them again if they have further questions.
Children’s reactions can vary from deep despair to denial or active protest. Whatever the reaction, let a child express their feelings without being stopped or urged to “be brave”or to “be the big boy now who can look after the family”.
When a parent or sibling dies
Most children who have been included around a death have a better understanding of what has happened and are not afraid. Children often make things up to compensate for a lack of information, and their fantasies can be worse than the reality. When a parent or sibling dies, reassure the child that the death was nothing to do with their thoughts or actions; that they are loved; and that life will not always be so sad.
Seeing the person who has died
Parents can be concerned that frightening memories will be powerful and children will be very upset. However, this is unlikely to be the case, especially if you have prepared the child for what to expect. Factual explanations are helpful, such as, “When people die it means their body doesn’t work anymore. Although they will look like they are asleep, they are not, because when you are just asleep your body works very well.” Explain that the person may feel cold to touch and their skin colour may be different.
Useful information for newly bereaved children and young people
- When someone special dies – under 7 leaflet
- When someone special dies – 7 to 11 leaflet
- When someone special dies – young person leaflet
Other useful information about bereavement, funerals and grieving
- Explaining to young children that someone has died
- Children’s understanding of death at different ages
- Explaining funerals, burial and cremation to children
- Viewing a body with a child
- How children and young people grieve
- What helps grieving children and young people
- Building resilience in bereaved children
- Children with special needs and their grief
Sudden bereavement: information for care professionals
When you are involved in the care of a person who is dying or who has died suddenly, it is important to consider whether that patient has children, or whether siblings are involved.
It can pose particular challenges for professionals when a child accompanies family members to an Accident & Emergency or Intensive Care Unit as a result of the death or imminent death of someone who is important to the child.
- Considering children’s needs when someone dies suddenly
- Breaking bad news – information for staff
- Suicide – information for staff
- Protocol for involving children when a parent is on ITU and is not expected to live
- The care of siblings following the death of their brother or sister
(Information taken from Child Bereavement UK)