© InfoNinety-two per cent of young people in the UK will experience bereavement before the age of 16 through the loss of a person or a pet they are close to. More than 250,000 British children aged between five and 15 have experienced the death of a parent.
Children and young people mostly deal with loss on their own. As a society we are not particularly good at dealing with other people's sadness and grief. This briefing for teachers and other educators outlines the current understanding of a sensitive subject that is often avoided.
Curriculum links: PSHE, Citizenship
What is bereavement?
The word bereave comes from the Old English word bereafian which means to rob. Today, bereavement is mostly used to describe the experience of being ‘robbed’ of someone you care about, especially through death.
How do children and young people grieve?
By the age of nine, most children will understand that death is something final that will happen to everyone at some point. Reactions to death for older children and young people can be quite similar to adults’.
They may range from intense sadness and crying through to confusion, anger, guilt, anxiety, numbness, loneliness, apathy. It is common to move quickly from one feeling to another, with an underlying sense of bewilderment and loss. Many children will experience periods of happiness and joy, or outright denial. Everyone is different, and there is no right or wrong way to grieve.
How can you know what young people are feeling?
You can't unless they tell you.
Many bereaved children can seem fine to an outsider. In reality, they may feel deeply upset, very alone, with no one to talk to. Adults may take the opportunity of bereavement counselling. Children are less likely to be offered it.
For others, there might be observable behavioural changes. Children may become withdrawn, begin bed-wetting, lack concentration, seem clingy. They may develop tendencies to bully, tell lies, be violent or aggressive. They may suffer headaches, sleep difficulties and eating disturbances.
They might feel confused and struggle to find meaning in what has happened to them, or feel vulnerable and different at school. They might be struggling to adjust to new family circumstances, or feel helpless because they lack power over important decisions, such as whether or not to attend the funeral.
What do young people who are grieving want and need?
Most likely, they want the person who has died back again. That's what they want, and what they cannot have. Therein lies the pain. But while many young people experience strong feelings following a bereavement, high numbers report never having spoken to anyone about it.
Professionals working with bereaved children recommend the following:
- information and education about what has happened, why, and what will happen next
- opportunities and help to express feelings
- opportunities to remember the person who died
- meeting others with similar experiences.
What else might help?
If you have time and resources, developing a school bereavement plan for the short, medium and longer terms can make handling a bereavement easier. Four kinds of deaths are most likely to affect a school community: the death of a student, a student’s carer, a member of school staff, or a larger-scale accident. The websites below suggest ways of preparing a plan.
What doesn't help?
Many of us worry that mentioning the bereavement or the person who has died can somehow make the situation worse. It’s not easy to bring up the subject with a bereaved person. But it is very unlikely that a few kind words will do anything except show that other people care.
Living with a bereavement that isn’t acknowledged at all can feel very lonely and isolating, with the added pressure of feeling like you have to pretend that everything is fine. Simply being warm, open and normal, without ignoring the young person’s situation and feelings, can feel really supportive.
Is it possible to identify different stages of the grieving process?
Not really. Grief can be very confusing, especially for the person concerned, and the ‘journey’ will vary from person to person.
Some days you might feel fine, and other days you can feel as though you’ve been bereaved all over again. You may also revisit your loved one’s death many times throughout your life, for example, on anniversaries and at Christmas.
For many young people, their feelings of loss continue long after friends and relatives assume that they have moved on. They might still have a deep urge to talk about their loved one and keep their memories alive, but often need some encouragement from others in order to know that it is OK to do so.
How long does the grieving process last?
You never get over a death. But most people get used to living with it. There are no rules as to how long that takes. The first year following a bereavement isn’t always the worst – it could just as easily be the second, or fourth.
Some circumstances can make it harder to deal with grief, for example, a refusal to accept that the death has happened, a lack of support, family disagreements, mixed feelings towards the dead person, unresolved grief from another bereavement or having no body to mourn.
What external sources of help exist?
Most families manage to deal with bereavement on their own, but if more help is needed, the local GP can be a helpful first port of call. Other sources of help include a child bereavement service, the school nurse or another specialist service such as Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) or the Childhood Bereavement Network. The UK-wide Winston’s Wish Helpline – 08088 020 021 – offers support, information and guidance to anyone caring for a bereaved child or young person.