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Children & Young People's Emotional Health

Bereavement

 

Grief is the word we use to describe the feelings we have after someone dies. Everyone grieves in their own way. It can be hard to know how to support your children as they grieve, especially if you are struggling with what has happened too.

Even babies and small children feel the sadness when someone they love dies. Children and young people cope best when the adults they rely on are honest with them and explain what has happened in a way they can understand.

If you are supporting a bereaved child it will help you to know some of the ways that children grieve differently to grown ups. This is affected by their age and level of understanding of what death means. Children don’t fully understand that death is forever until they are about 7 or 8 years old.

Dive Deeper

Grief

It can help for your child to learn about anger. You can support them do this.

Children don’t show their grief all of the time

Children tend to ‘move in and out’ of grief – one moment very upset and the next asking what’s for tea. They cannot cope with ‘big feelings’ for too long at a time. Children let themselves take a break from their feelings which is very healthy.

Revisiting grief again and again

Children and young people revisit their grief as they grow and understand more. What you miss about having a Dad when you are six will be different to what you miss when you are 16. So children may grieve ‘hard’ at different times in their childhood even if the person died long ago.

Remembering the person

Talking about the person who died and saying their name is healthy. You might feel worried it will make you or your child feel sad, or bring back difficult memories. When we avoid these conversations children learn to push down and avoid thoughts and feelings.

There are many ways you can remember them everyday, and also on days that can feel harder like birthdays or Christmas. 

  • Photos and videos are precious. Make sure that you have copies and ‘back up’ files on phones and computers. 
  • Choose some special photos to have around the house. Let your child choose some that they want to have for themselves. Tell the stories that go with the photo.
  • If you have family or friends who remember the person when they were growing up it can be helpful to get them to talk / write what they remember about them.
  • Treasure memory boxes help on days when you are really missing the person or want to talk about them.
  • Plan ahead for times you know might be hard.

Those who are very young when the person died will need your help to learn more about the person and feel a connection to them.

Photo’s, memory boxes and talking about your own memories of the person are good ways to help your child ‘get to know’ the person even though they have died.

Language

It is hard knowing you have to give your child bad news that is going to cause them pain.

Whilst no parent would want to do this it is such an important job, and you know your child best.

  • Think about your child’s age and understanding. Decide what they need to know now. Look at the tabs below about age and understanding.
  • Choose a quiet and private place. Do you want to be alone with your children or do you want someone else with you?
  • ‘Warn’ your child that you need to tell them something sad. ‘I’m afraid I have some bad news to tell you’.
  • Be honest – trying to protect your child by saying untrue things can lead to a lot of confusion and upset and even loss of trust in the future.

Bereavements like suicide and murder can still be explained to children in a way they can understand. 

Read more about discussing tricky topics

Use simple language. Use the words ‘dead’ or ‘died’. Using words like ‘lost’ or ‘passed away’ confuses little children and makes it hard for even older children to understand when they are in shock.

Feelings

People expect to feel sad after someone has died. That can be a big part of the feelings but adults, children and young people will experience a lot of other emotions too.

There are no ‘right or wrong’ ways to feel. You will probably notice that for children and grown ups feelings sometimes change from one moment to the next.

  • You might find, especially in the early days that you and / or your children feel ‘numb’ and the tears and upset don’t happen straight away.
  • Some people feel very tired and sleep a lot. Don’t worry about this – it is the brains way of taking on board something really hard.
  • Sometimes people feel relieved to begin with especially if a person has been very ill or the relationship has been very difficult.
  • People may feel angry for all sorts of reasons with themselves, other people or the person who has died.
  • There may be feelings of guilt about things that happened in the relationship, or even that you are still alive.
  • It is common to feel worried and anxious about other people you love and your own health.
  • Children may feel jealous and cross that other people still have their parent / grandparent – it can feel unfair.

Different feelings will come and go at different times. There is no right or wrong way to get through it. Reassure your child that what they are going through is a part of grief and it will not always be this hard.

Give your child opportunities to talk about what they are going through;

  • Talking is often easier when you are doing something else – like cooking, walking the dog, driving back from the supermarket.
  • Encourage questions – if you don’t know the answer that is okay. You can always agree to try and find out for them.
  • They may feel protective of you and want to talk to other family and friends or someone at school.

When your child is going through a hard time – it's easy to let boundaries slip. This can make your child feel like everything has changed – they will feel safer and more secure if you keep to important rules.

  • Whilst all feelings are okay your child needs to know safe ways to show them. If you are angry it is okay to punch your pillow or listen to loud angry music – but it is not okay to hit your brother or swear at a teacher.
  • If an angry outburst has happened take time out to talk about it when things have calmed down. Help them have coping strategies ready next time they feel that way.
  • You will not all grieve in the same way and at the same time. A good day for one person can be a bad day for another. Talk about this and how you can manage it.

If your child feels sad and overwhelmed help them to think about what helps. Do they need time alone or a cuddle? Does playing with the dog, or going to the park help the strong feelings to pass?

Funerals

Whether your children go to the funeral of someone they love is a very personal decision. You know your children best.

Funerals are an important part of saying goodbye. They are a good chance to be with others, who cared about the person, and to share and listen to memories.

Even very small children can attend funerals and be a part of a special family time if that is what you decide.

If you think your child should go it is important they understand what a funeral is and what it will be like. Watch the video below for help on explaining a funeral to a child.

Things To Think About

  • Involve them in the planning – let them help to choose music / flowers. 
  • You may decide together that they should attend for some parts of the day and not others.
  • Ask a person they know well to be their supporter for the day so they know they can leave if they want to.

If they are very young and won’t remember, or they are not going to attend, ask someone to ‘collect memories’ for them. This could be;

  • Getting people to write memories of the person who has died in a book.
  • Taking photos of flowers and where the service was held.
  • Keeping copies of orders of service.

If your child is not going to attend the funeral think of other ways for them to say goodbye;

  • You might visit a special place to remember.
  • Plant a tree in your garden / in a pot together.
  • Light a candle.
  • Write letters / draw pictures / choose photos to go in the coffin, or keep in a special place.

Read more about ways to include your child in a funeral

Pet Death

Pets are an important part of the family. You might be surprised by just how upsetting it is when a loved animal dies. It is very sad and affects everyone. Pet death might be a child’s first experience of someone they have loved dying, or they may have been through loss before. Either way it is a painful experience and causes all of the feelings of grief.

  • Tell your child what has happened in a straightforward and honest way.
  • Use the words dead and died and explain what that means. ‘Benny was very ill, the vet couldn’t make him better, his body stopped working and he died’.
  • Decide how you want to say goodbye to your pet with your child. Children often like to hold some sort of ‘funeral’ for a pet. This can be a good opportunity for them to say goodbye and understand what a funeral is.
  • Sharing your feelings and comforting each other sets a good example of how you get through hard times together.
  • Let school / nursery friends and family know your pet has died.

CBeebies has some good advice for supporting younger children when a pet dies.

Newsround have a good video for older children.

Support From Nursery Or School

You may decide to keep your child at home with the family for a short while after someone they love has died, or they may want to be at school. This is a personal decision and you know your child best.

Schools can play an important part in supporting bereaved children. Both in the early days and as time goes by.  It is important they know when something difficult has happened in a child’s life. Let nursery / school know what has happened as soon as you can.

Make a plan for when your child goes back to school. Involve your child in deciding what might help going back a bit easier. School may have some ideas of how to help, or know services that can advise them and you.

  • The teachers can talk to your child’s friends about what has happened and help them know how to support your child.
  • Discuss how much information you want others in the school to have. If your child is older they will want to know ‘who knows what.’
  • They can have a named person to go to for support.
  • Make a plan with school for moments when your child feels overwhelmed.

Schools sometimes need reminding of what your child has been through as time passes.

  • Let new schools / new teachers know about this important event in your child’s life.
  • Let school know if a hard anniversary or day is coming up.

Keep school informed if you notice your child seems to be struggling – however long after the bereavement it is.

Support For Yourself

It is difficult to cope with your own feelings of grief as well as supporting your family. Taking care of yourself is really important, and will benefit you and your children.

  • Ask family and friends to help out if you can. People often offer in the early days but you might need to remind them as time goes on. People like to feel useful.
  • Talking to other people who have been in similar situations can be a help. There are websites and online forums out there for many different kinds of bereavement.
  • Looking after yourself is important eating well, getting rest and being active. This might feel too hard – but it will help your mind and body to cope better with what has happened. 

Read more about looking after yourself here

If you notice any of the following you could need some mental health support;

  • You struggle to take care of yourself and your family
  • Your sleep too much or too little.
  • You are drinking too much alcohol/ taking drugs to cope
  • You don’t want to be with your family and friends and / or they are worried about you.

It is important you tell someone and get professional help. 

See your GP to talk about this or get in touch with Norfolk Wellbeing Services. You can also call Just One Number to talk to a health professional.

It is an emergency if you do not feel ‘safe’ and think you might hurt yourself, you should ask for an emergency GP appointment or go to A&E.

When To Get More Support

Although it is not easy many children and families cope with the sadness of the death of a loved one in their own way.

You might worry that your child needs help to make sense of their feelings.

  • They may seem ‘stuck’ and be overwhelmed by difficult feelings such sadness, anxiety or anger.
  • They may be more aware of what they ‘miss’ as they grow and understand more.
  • They might have really bad memories of what happened and need help to manage this.
  • You may notice they don’t seem to ‘care’ and are taking risks, struggling with school work and attendance.

Talk to your child about what you have noticed, and why you are worried. See if they know what has triggered their feelings and behaviour. They might have some good ideas of what they would find helpful.

Find out more ideas for getting through bad days

Explain that you think it would be a good idea to ask other people for help too, tell them who you are going to speak to.

Talk to nursery / school, and explain your worries. School may be able to provide support or be able to refer for more help.

Call Just One Number to discuss it with a health professional, or speak to your GP.

How Different Ages Experience Bereavement

Who can Help?

You can contact the Healthy Child Programme by calling Just One Number on 0300 300 0123 or texting Parentline on 07520 631590. Our opening hours are 8am-6pm Monday-Friday (excluding bank holidays) and 9am-1pm on Saturdays.

If you are 11-19 you can text ChatHealth on 07480 635060 for confidential advice from one of our team.

You can speak to other Norfolk parents and carers by clicking our online community forum below. 

 

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