What’s normal?

For some babies, toddlers and very young children, the death of a parent, carer, sibling or grandparent is an experience they are faced with 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, 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.

Babies can notice the absence of a regular caregiver, for example a grandparent, and become unsettled and upset, looking for their return. They can also perceive the changes that occur as a result of the death of a loved one in the routines or the environment, and are especially sensitive to the mood of their carers. They might show their distress by being clingy or changing their eating or sleeping habits.

Toddlers might also express their feelings through increased tantrums or restlessness (i.e. difficulties staying still), fear of being alone, and they 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.

Pre-school children, as well as the normal reactions mentioned above, can sometimes think the death is their fault. It is important to reassure them that they are not responsible and that adults will keep them safe. Also, they may not yet understand that death is permanent (for example, they may think the person will return) and happens to everyone (they may believe it cannot happen to them or their family).

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.

Strategies to support children and families

The death of a loved one involves suffering and pain, and so it is understandable that adults find it difficult to talk about and might think that avoiding the discussion is the best way to protect themselves and their child from any distress. Also, parents may assume that very young children have not noticed what has happened or would not be able to understand. But 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 as a practitioner to acknowledge that loss and talk about the person who has died.  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, discuss this with their parents and encourage them to reassure the child.

It might feel as though the right thing to do is to show emotional control in these difficult situations. But if you feel moved by the situation, do express your feelings to the child. Just ensure that you are able to remain in control of your feelings because children can find it frightening if they see you very overwhelmed.

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.
Tips to share with parents
  1. 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.
  2. 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 something very sad has happened, 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.
  3. Keep your routines at home as stable and predictable as you can, and as easy for you as possible.
  4. Share time together with your child and try to make time for play. Play is a good way to help children process their feelings.
  5. Try to look after yourself as much as you can. That way, you will have more resources to look after your child too.
  6. 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.
  7. 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).

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