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Bereavement has probably touched everyone’s life at some point, especially after the last couple of years that we have all experienced during the COVID pandemic. However, for children the loss of someone close can be an overwhelming experience and may have lasting effects that may impact their later lives.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reports that in 2020, there were 607,922 deaths registered in England and Wales; an increase of 14.5% compared with 2019. For the first time since 1981 there were more male deaths registered than female deaths: 308,069 male deaths and 299,853 female deaths. Whilst data is collected each year on the number of children affected by the divorce of their parents, the number affected by the death of a parent is not.
In the absence of data, children’s bereavement charities such as the Childhood Bereavement Network have estimated that:
- One parent dies every 22 minutes.
- There are 112 newly bereaved children every day.
- 23,600 parents die in the UK, leaving dependent children annually.
- 41,000 dependent children aged 0-17 are bereaved annually.
- By the age of 16, 4.7 per cent or around 1 in 20 young people will have experienced the death of one or both of their parents.
What is bereavement?
When someone important to us dies, we experience a range of physical reactions and emotions as we mourn and adjust to the loss including, but not limited to:
- Emotional pain.
- Changes in appetite.
- Difficulty sleeping.
- Trouble concentrating.
Bereavement is the term used to describe the aftermath of a loss when our emotions are at their rawest. It is a normal response to loss; however, it can develop into other conditions such as depression or anxiety. Often the circumstances of the loss, for example the closeness of the relationship, events leading to the loss or the preparedness for the loss, can all play a part in a person’s individual experience of bereavement.
Bereavement can also occur after other deep significant losses such as:
- The break up of a close relationship.
- The loss of a job.
- The onset of a chronic illness such as dementia, where people mourn the loss of the person that the dementia suffer once was.
- Even the loss of a treasured pet.
Everyone experiences bereavement and grief differently. There is no set timescale for coming through the bereavement cycle and some people may not even experience bereavement at the time of the loss, but suffer it sometime later, even years later.
What is child bereavement?
According to Grief Encounter, one child in every UK classroom will experience the death of someone close by the time they reach 16 years old. The loss of a grandparent is often a child’s first experience of death and bereavement. They may also experience the loss of a much-loved family pet.
To a child this is often as upsetting as losing a relative – after all, for the child that pet was a family member. Losing someone or something we love and feel close to is extremely difficult and painful for anyone, but can be particularly challenging for a child. However, every child and young person will react to, feel and express this loss differently.
Whilst there is an expectation that children may experience the loss of pets, older relatives and even parents during their childhood, losing a brother or sister early in life is something no one expects; it changes everything, and the gap they leave is huge.
A sibling’s grief is often overshadowed by the grief of other family members, and family members and friends may not understand the role a sibling played in the child’s life.
The death of a sibling is a tremendous loss for a child. A surviving child may feel the need to “fill in” for the deceased child or may worry that the parents would have preferred if they had died rather than the sibling. It is important for parents to recognise the grief of surviving siblings and support them.
How does bereavement affect a child?
When you tell a child that someone has died, they might not react very much, you may even wonder if they have understood what you have told them. It can take a while to process the news and they may not have words to express their feelings. A child’s understanding of loss will depend on many things, including their age and their stage of development.
Babies will have no understanding of death, but will notice if their main caregiver such as their mother or father is absent.
They may exhibit:
- Feeding and sleeping difficulties.
- Being unsettled.
Toddlers still won’t have any understanding of death, but they will be very upset if their main caregiver is absent. At around two, children start to notice the absence of other familiar people such as grandparents.
They may exhibit:
- Loud crying, being inconsolable.
- Anger about changes to their daily routine.
- Sleep problems and tummy aches.
- Looking for the person and asking where they are.
Pre-school age children may talk about death, but they don’t really understand it and think that it is reversible like it is in the cartoons. They may ask awkward questions such as “how does someone breathe if they have been buried?” and ask the same questions repeatedly. They need reassurance that you are not going to die too, that death is not their fault, and they may exhibit clingy behaviour or behave inappropriately for their age.
Most pre-teen children understand that death is permanent and inevitable. Some children may take longer than others to process this. They may become fascinated by what happens when someone dies and they may worry that you or others may die too. They may worry about the effect on you if they are sad, as they are aware of the need for consideration for those affected by a loss and they may even try to hide their own feelings.
They may exhibit:
- Withdrawal, sadness, loneliness.
- Getting angry more often.
- Difficulty concentrating at school.
- Regressive behaviour.
- Trying to be brave.
- Trying to control things.
Most teenagers have a much better understanding of death and can think about the long-term impact that it will have on their lives. They may worry about things like finances or the future, such as who will take care of them or look after the house.
They may exhibit:
- Difficulties in talking about their feelings or wanting to talk to their friends rather than to family and other adults.
- Feelings of sadness, anger or guilt – Their emotions may be quite extreme.
- Negative feelings about themselves.
- Thoughts of wishing it hadn’t happened, or wondering why it had to happen to them.
- Changes in how well they do at school or work.
- Concerns that they might develop the illness that the person died of, especially if they were related.
Two children from the same family of the same age may react very differently to a death.
Some messages to the Childline advice forum, reproduced below, highlight the range of effects that death can have on children and young people:
“My dad died and I am really upset but I don’t want to talk to my mum because I don’t like getting her upset what should I do ?”
“On Christmas da of 2016, I woke up all happy to open my presents. I was really excited. After I opened everything, my mum came into my room, her face expressionless. She told me that my great uncla had died that morning. I was really sad, but I didn’t cry, and that is what I find wierd. I loved him very much. I also feel like I didn’t value the time that I spent with him when he was alive, but of course I didn’t know I would never see him again then. I know I cannot hang on to the past but why did I not feel anything then? Please help me Sam… I don’t know how to feel.”
“so 2 and a half years ago my mum passed away from cancer. This year will be my 3rd christmas without her and im feeling angrier than i have ever felt before. School has been tough for me recently in the build up to christmas because i have been skipping lessons and getting into a lot of trouble and at home i have just been isolating myself in my room. I have been crying so much and i am really struggling. Christmas is supposed to be a happy time of the year and for me it just makes me feel angry and upset. I really dont know what to do.”
How bereavement affects a child’s development
The death of a close family member has been shown to be a risk factor for children and young people’s development.
Bereavement in childhood has been shown to link to:
- Lower academic attainment.
- Lower aspirations for continued learning.
- Increase in physical health complaints.
- Increase in risk-taking behaviours.
- Higher levels of anxiety and depression into adulthood.
- Increased risk of school exclusion.
- Increase in youth offending.
It is inevitable that at some point school and college staff will work with children affected by death in one way or another. The most important thing that the school community can do for children who experience bereavement is to acknowledge the death and offer them the chance to talk about it.
Children will have many experiences of loss and separation as part of their normal development, but how a child grieves and how they are supported not only in the family but also at school can be vital to their immediate and long-term future.
Effects of childhood bereavement in adulthood
For the vast majority of children who have experienced childhood bereavement, even the death of a parent or sibling, the support and care that they received at the time helped them to deal with and come to terms with their loss and to develop into adulthood with few, if any, mental scars.
Some may revisit their grief as they grow up, especially those who begin to understand the things they missed out on by not having that person in their life. There may also be times, for example anniversaries, family events such as weddings or Christmas, when these memories are more current. The pain of the loss doesn’t vanish, but can become easier with time.
However, studies have revealed many negative outcomes experienced by some people associated with childhood bereavement, for example:
- An increased likelihood of substance abuse.
- Greater vulnerability to depression.
- Higher risk of criminal behaviour.
- School underachievement.
- Lower employment rates.
For these people, it is never too late to seek bereavement support and perhaps counselling to help deal with their negative behaviours associated with their bereavement as a child. Details of useful contacts can be found at the end of this article.
Complicated grief in children
As previously stated, there is not a set time for how long grieving should last. However, experts agree that if someone has difficulty moving forward through grief, they are probably experiencing complicated grief, although there is no officially accepted definition of complicated grief in the UK.
It generally refers to situations where many months or even years after a bereavement a bereaved child is struggling to cope with the emotional impact of grief and deal with everyday life. It is often associated with situations where the death was very tragic, traumatic or unexpected.
Signs of complicated grief can be seen in both children and adults and may include:
- Difficulty accepting the death happened.
- Difficulty trusting others.
- A lot of bitterness related to the death.
- Uneasiness about moving on with life.
- Not wanting to spend time with friends and loved ones.
- Feeling hopeless.
- Negative views of the future.
- Agitated behaviour.
The child or young person might appear stuck or frozen in their bereavement. Encouraging them to talk about their feelings can help them to feel supported. Complicated grief in children can be difficult to identify; however, no change at all in their grieving process can be a warning sign, so if you have concerns, speak with your GP who will be able to help.
Signs and symptoms of grief in children
Children often process and display complex emotions very differently to adults. With some children you might not even realise that they are grieving. Younger children may not understand the concept of death and its permanence, they may often miss a loved one in small bursts and may be sad for a few minutes every now and again.
They may not fully realise what the loss will really mean to their life. Children often seem fine one moment, only to become very upset the next, because their brains don’t seem to be able to cope with the sadness for long periods of time.
Children and young people who have gone through a significant loss can feel:
- Anxious or worried, including about their own health or the health of people close to them.
- Frightened about losing other people they love.
- Sad, low or withdrawn.
- Isolated or lonely.
- Angry or irritable.
- Physically unwell.
You may begin to notice that:
- They are unable to concentrate.
- They are unable to sleep.
- Their moods change quickly.
- They cannot accept the situation.
- They are struggling to cope.
It is important too for them to try to accept how they feel. Try not to put too much pressure on them to feel better straight away. It is natural for them to have strong reactions when someone they love or are close to dies.
How to help a child deal with bereavement
As adults, it is natural to want to protect children. But what we often don’t realise is that children are much more perceptive and resilient than we think, as long as they are told about a death in an appropriate way. It is best to be honest about what has happened as soon as you are able to. Delaying a conversation with them might make it harder for yourself, as well as for the child. There will be many factors that affect their understanding and reaction to what has happened.
Some of these factors include:
- The age of the child.
- Their relationship with the person that died.
- The general circumstances, or how the person died.
- How the family expresses feelings and communicates.
- How naturally resilient the child is.
Explaining things simply, using real words like “dead” might feel uncomfortable for you, but they are easier for a child’s understanding. Euphemisms such as “lost” or “gone to sleep” may seem kinder, but they can be confusing for a child.
It is important to allow children to process their grief in their own way. Mourning is an important part of the bereavement process, so tell them that it is OK to feel sad and that they don’t have to hide how they feel from you.
If your child has just lost an important person in their life, it is likely that you have too. You might be trying to help your child process their loss, but you also need to process your own feelings.
Be mindful of your behaviour in front of the child, but it is by no means necessary to hide your feelings from them. Children learn how to grieve by copying the responses of adults around them; showing your grief may encourage them to share theirs.
Children need to know that everything is going to be ok, even if it feels like their world is falling apart right now. Reassurance comes from things that are familiar such as regular mealtimes, regular bedtimes and friendly faces around them, including their teachers and school friends.
This will provide an additional outlet of support, if needed. Ask your child’s school what support they can provide, and ask your child whether there is anything they would like at school, such as having a particular teacher they can go to.
Going to the funeral and the cemetery may be very helpful. Many children will choose to go to the funeral; however, this should always be the child’s choice. For some children, whatever their age, this may be too traumatic for them, preferring to remember the person as they last saw them.
Child bereavement counselling
Many children can find comfort in attending bereavement counselling sessions. These can give children the chance to express their emotions in a safe environment that is an alternative to their own homes. Child bereavement counselling services work with children and young people in a sensitive manner, enabling them to discuss their concerns and worries and also work towards how the future may look for them.
You can ask your GP for details of local services or search directories such as The Counselling Directory. However, it is important not to assume that your child needs to see someone; your support may be enough to see them though the bereavement.
Child bereavement support
Marie Curie offers emotional support and practical information for anyone affected by terminal illness, and their friends and families. Call Marie Curie’s helpline on 0800 090 2309 from 8am to 6pm Monday to Friday and 11am to 5pm Saturday.
You can talk to Childline about anything including bereavement. Call them for free on 0800 1111.
Care for the Family are a national charity which aims to strengthen family life and to help those who face family difficulties including bereavement.
The National Bereavement Partnership provides a support helpline, 0800 448 0800, counselling referral and befriending service for all those suffering from bereavement.
Bereavement is a part of childhood much more often than commonly thought. Childhood bereavement is one of society’s most highly painful yet rarely examined and most underestimated life experiences.
Some children can be subject to a distressing range of emotional, psychological and behavioural difficulties, which can extend well into adulthood. Acknowledging a child’s feelings, supporting them and seeking professional help where appropriate can help a child deal with these sometimes traumatic and usually very upsetting life events.