How to support a child in time of grief

Father and daughter colouring together

More than 100 children are bereaved of a parent every day in the UK.

From the work we do with our partner charity, Winston’s Wish, we know that by the time children reach primary school age, there is likely to be one child in every class who has experienced the death of an immediate family member. It is so important to support a child in time of grief.

Some people think children do not grieve because they respond so differently to adults

Children will respond to grief and loss according to their age and developmental stage. They need time and space to learn about death and grief. Then time to make sense of and express their feelings about what has happened to them.

Children, unlike adults who stay with their grief, often jump in and out of their grief – this is called ‘puddle jumping’. It means at first they may be upset about their loss, but then appear to be fine for a period of time, before becoming upset again, and so on. This can be very confusing for children. They will need time and understanding to help them to process their loss. This ‘puddle jumping’ is a natural way to protect themselves from being overwhelmed by powerful feelings. As children get older it becomes harder and teenagers may spend extended periods of time in one feeling or another.

Talk about death

It’s a difficult conversation to have, but it’s incredibly important to have it. It is understandable for parents to be worried about talking about death with their child; it is a natural instinct to want to protect them from being upset. But conversations can allow children to express their emotions; be it sadness, anger or fear. It’s important to open up the conversations about death and to allow children who are grieving to ‘puddle jump.’

Some children may be scared to talk about their feelings or about the loved one they have lost. Adults shouldn’t wait for the child to talk about the person who has died. It’s important to bring the person who has died into conversation, allowing children to make their memories as strong as possible and everlasting.

Every child is different and will respond to grief in their own way

It is so important to support a child in time of grief. There are a few things which can help them to cope with their grief.

Recording and remembering – It may be helpful for children to record their thoughts and feelings and find ways to remember the person they have lost. They could draw a picture or start a diary or journal, write a letter to the person they lost or create a memory box or scrapbook filled with photos and things that remind them of that person.

Get their school involved – When children experience a bereavement they may find it difficult to concentrate during their school lessons. It’s so important therefore to ensure the child’s school is aware of their bereavement. They can offer support and understanding for the child from an additional resource in the form of a trusted teacher.

Read a book or do an activity book – there are many books available that have been written specifically to help children of certain ages to understand and cope with their grief. These may be better suited to younger children but teenagers can also certainly benefit from them.

Why the need for support?

If not supported, grief can manifest itself and result in negative outcomes for the bereaved child, both physically and mentally. According to Winton’s Wish, bereaved children are 1.5 times more likely to have mental health problems including depression and anxiety. Bereaved children are also 60% more likely to be expelled from school or have increased learning difficulties. By receiving support, negative outcomes for bereaved children can be minimised and dealing with emotions can be easier.

Further support

Established in 1992, Winston’s Wish is the leading childhood bereavement charity in the UK. They offer the widest range of practical support and guidance on bereavement to children, their families and the professionals who support them.

The Winston’s Wish Freephone National Helpline is available on 08088 020 021. It’s open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm. The Helpline team will provide advice and guidance to families and professionals that call for support. They also offer training days for professionals, plus a range of specialist publications.

This article was written in collaboration with Winston’s Wish, an AIG Life chosen charity.