Around 90% of children will experience a significant bereavement before the age of sixteen years. For some, the death of a parent, carer, sibling or grandparent will happen in the early years of their life. Because babies and young children are very aware of their environment and the emotions of those around them, it’s likely that they will notice if someone is no longer there - or if the adults in their life are grieving. If they are not given information from adults, they may attempt to make sense of the situation on their own.
Some reactions to bereavement:
Babies can notice the absence of a regular caregiver, for example a grandparent. They might become unsettled and upset and start looking for their return.
When their normal routines or environments change as a result of the death of a loved one, they may pick up on this. They are also especially sensitive to the mood of their carers. If they do feel distressed, they might show it by being clingy or changing their eating or sleeping habits.
Toddlers might express their feelings through increased tantrums or restlessness (i.e. difficulties staying still). Or they might develop a fear of being alone or become more whiney or grizzly. It is possible that some may regress to a younger age, for example by losing their toilet training. They might also play out ‘loss related’ stories with their toys.
As well as the normal reactions mentioned above, pre-school aged children can sometimes think of a death as their fault. Also, they may not yet understand that death is permanent (for example, they may think the person will return). They might also think of death as something that would happen to others, but not to their family.
It is important to reassure them that they are not responsible and that adults will keep them safe.
- Things to consider when supporting families affected by bereavement
The death of a loved one involves suffering and pain, and so it is understandable that adults find it difficult to talk about. Parents and carers might therefore think that avoiding the discussion is the best way to protect themselves and their child from any distress. Also, some may assume that very young children have not noticed what has happened or would not be able to understand. But they should be aware that this is far from reality.
Losing a parent or sibling can be especially devastating for children. Since the loss will be acutely felt by the child, it may be appropriate for you to acknowledge that loss and talk about the person who has died. You could allow some time together for giving comfort and support, and let the child know it is OK to be sad. When a young child has lost a sibling, keep in mind they may have feelings of guilt. Young children might think that they should have died instead or that they are responsible. If you think that this might be the case with a child in your care, discuss this with their parents and encourage them to reassure the child.
- How you can support children in your setting
Acknowledge the child’s grief: support the child to feel safe to express their emotions and let them know it’s ok to be upset.
Comfort and reassure them that it’s not their fault and that there are no ‘wrong’ feelings.
Try to create stability in the early years setting. It can help to continue with some of their existing routines. This will provide them with a sense of security.
Ensure there is good communication with the family. This will help the parents and carers to feel reassured when their child is away from them and to be consistent in what’s been talked about to the child about the bereavement.
Let them know it’s ok to have fun. Children often make sense of difficult events through play.
- Helping parents and carers to support their bereaved child
- To support parents to begin these challenging discussions, the simplest first step is to acknowledge with them that it is completely understandable that they want to protect their children from this news.
- Emphasise to parents that talking with young children about death allows them to understand and express feelings of sadness, anger, and pain that might be associated with the loss, and ultimately it allows them to grieve.
- Advise parents to tell children in person as soon as they can about the bereavement, and to do so in an intimate and safe place, where the child can freely express what they feel.
- Support parents in providing a clear and simple explanation to their child that is based on the real situation and which considers their stage of developmental. This will avoid them jumping to their own conclusions.
- If necessary, gently acknowledge with parents and carers that it’s important they remain in control of their feelings, because children can find it frightening if they see them very overwhelmed.
- Bereavement in the context of the health crisis
During lockdown, loss is a theme in all children’s lives, like the loss of rewarding routines and relationships with significant people. But of course, the pandemic has also resulted in many permanent losses through bereavement. These abrupt, rapid, and unexpected bereavements can cause fear and anguish and lead to grief difficulties in both children and adults.
- Tips to share with parents
- Young children, and even small babies, will be aware that someone has died and that the adults in their life are grieving. They might express their feelings in lots of different ways, like being clingy, changing their eating or sleeping habits, being restless or having more tantrums. It’s important to talk about the loss with them.
- Tell your child in person as soon as you can about the bereavement. Try to do this in an intimate and safe place, where the child can freely express what they feel. You might want to explain that the loved one has died and that they will not be able to see that person again. Give space for a child to ask questions. If a child asks a question that you don’t know how to answer, it is OK to say that you will think about it and talk to them again later when you have more information.
- Keep your routines at home as stable and predictable as you can, and as easy for you as possible.
- Share time together with your child and try to make time for play. Play is a good way to help children process their feelings.
- Try to look after yourself as much as you can. That way, you will have more resources to look after your child too.
- If someone has died as a result of coronavirus, you might not have had the opportunity to say goodbye or to mark the death as you usually might. It might help your child and the whole family to perform grief rituals, like drawing pictures, planting a tree in memory of the person or starting a memory box with significant objects such as photos, pieces of cloth, bracelets.
- Stories can be used to shape a child’s understanding. For example, take a look at: Someone I Know Has Died (Trish Phillips), Never Too Young to Grieve: Supporting Children Under 5 After the Death of a Parent (Winston’s Wish), Missing Mummy (Rebecca Cobb), I Miss You: a First Look at Death (Pat Thomas), Dear Grandma Bunny (Dick Bruna), The Little Flower Bulb: Helping Children Bereaved by Suicide (Eleanor Gormally), Someone has died suddenly and support guide (Brake, Sudden charities).