Feelings, responses and reactions to a death in the family
The death of a family member, whether unexpected or expected, has a huge impact on families and the ways in which families make sense of and cope with their grief differs enormously.
Everyone’s bereavement journey is unique. But grief is normal, very necessary and needs to be expressed. Research shows that there are common emotions and stages of grief experienced by those left behind after bereavement. Working through the stages is, according to experts, the best way to eventually find a sense of peace and acceptance.
The universally simple five stages of a grief model, pioneered by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, refers to the five stages of grief in helping to understand and deal with personal reaction to trauma. These are:
- Denial – (They can’t have died)
- Anger – (I can’t believe they died and left me, or why has God taken them?)
- Bargaining – (If only I had stayed, they might not have died)
- Depression – (What is the point of carrying on?)
- Acceptance – (I’ve lost someone I love, but I know I can move on)
However, each person will go through grief at their own pace, time and order.
Adults may find it overwhelming to offer support to children when they are also experiencing their own grief. You should accept that things will be difficult for a while and cannot be made better in a short space of time. Sometimes adults and children will need professional help to guide them through the process of bereavement.
There is more than one way to support children and expressing how you feel enables them to know that it is fine to show their feelings too. The way that you deal with your emotions will have an impact on how a child copes.
With support and information everyone can be helped to understand what has happened and can slowly learn to live with their loss.
Supporting and talking to children about death
Even though it may be difficult for you, it is vital to help a child through the journey of grief by talking about the person who has died, sharing feelings and information, giving reassurance and recalling and stimulating memories. Children will not want to forget the person who has died and will often ask difficult questions throughout the process of grieving. Talk to them in language they understand by using straightforward words such as ‘dead’ and ‘dying’ and check that they have understood by asking pertinent questions. It is best to deliver the news slowly and in small chunks.
Death of a parent
One of the most difficult losses that a child can ever face is the death of a parent. Their response to this will vary according to their age, the cause and nature of death, their relationship with the parent, their own resilience and the support and care they receive. They may experience a range of feelings including a deep sadness, anger and rage at what has happened, anxiety and a sense of loneliness. Children will express their grief in different ways and may move from displaying intense sadness to laughing and playing in a short space of time, whereas adults may be more overwhelmed by grief.
Death of a grandparent
Grandparents often play a unique role in their grandchildren’s lives and grandchildren of all ages can be deeply affected by their death. How they respond to the death of a grandparent may depend on a range of factors including their age, the length and nature of the relationship with their grandparent, the cause of death and the way other family members cope with their grief. It may also be one of the first experiences a child has of death.
Different causes of death
Any death in a family is traumatic. If a death has occurred following a long illness there may well have been time to prepare a child for the loss. Children who are kept in the picture tend to have a more positive recovery. Adults too will have had time to prepare; for example writing letters to the dying person, taking photographs and saying goodbye.
If the death is sudden, for example through a road accident, heart attack, or drug overdose there will have been no opportunity to put these preparations in place and last conversations will linger in the memory. If a death is through suicide, there will be specific difficulties for the families left behind. They may experience intense feelings and a deep sense of guilt or regret and ask themselves more heart breaking questions. The world may no longer have any order or make sense.
Helping children make a memory box or book
One way of giving a child permission to talk about the person who has died is by making a memory box or book with them. It will give them the opportunity to talk about the person who has died. It will enable them to personalise it with their favourite pictures, and other memorabilia that is important to them. Involving children in this process allows them to connect with memories and the past they have shared with the person who has died. The memory box doesn’t need to be finished. It can be continually added to as they build up their own memories. It will also be an emotional journey, so it is important to guide and support the child along the way.
When more help may be needed
Everyone’s response to bereavement will be unique to them. There is no right or normal experience. If you find that that your responses are continuing and affecting your ability to cope with daily life and your relationships with others, you may find it helpful to talk to your GP, your local church or faith group, or a support organisation, who will be able to guide you through the feelings you are experiencing. You may need to seek additional help in coping with bereavement.
If you are concerned about a child, there are specific organisations that can help (see below). Inform the school about their loss and see if there is anyone they can talk to in school, if they need some help. Many schools have a learning mentor or school counsellor who will support children with a range of emotional difficulties, including bereavement. A charitable organisation called the Place2Be operates in some schools and is a school-based counselling service, dedicated to improving the emotional wellbeing of children. www.counsellinginschools.co.uk can refer children for counselling.
You may find that family and friends are there to offer support for the first few weeks but then there comes a time when they need to get on with their own lives. This is when you might need help from other sources in coping. Below is a list of organisations that may be of help for you or the child you are looking after.
Organisations concerned with Bereavement
Bereaved children and their families
Winston’s Wish is the leading childhood bereavement charity and the largest provider of services to bereaved children, young people and their families in the UK.
It offers practical support and guidance to families, professionals and anyone concerned about a grieving child and believes that the right support at the right time can enable young people to live with their grief and rebuild positive futures.
The Child Bereavement Charity (CBC) provides specialised support, information and training to all those affected when a baby or child dies, or when a child is bereaved. By learning continuously from children and parents, CBC leads the way in improving the quality of care offered by professionals to such families, both in the immediate crisis and in the time following the death of someone important in their lives.
Grief Encounter aims to help and support bereaved children and their families by offering a flexible and accessible bereavement service which listens and understands, cares and responds to the needs of each service user.
Daisy’s Dream supports children and their families affected by both life-threatening illness and bereavement throughout Berkshire and the surrounding areas. The death of a significant person in a child’s life can be devastating and difficult to understand. Daisy’s Dream offers support and advice to families, professionals and anyone concerned about a grieving child.
Balloons is a charity that provides community-based support for children, young people and their families from Exeter, Mid or East Devon following the death, or before an expected death, of a significant person in their lives, such as a parent, carer or sibling. Their aim is to inform, guide and support children and young people; to help them manage the impact of their grief and their reactions to their loss.
Telephone: 02380 647550
Offers monthly support groups, befriending and if required counselling for bereaved children and their families, support for children coping with a relative or friend who is terminally ill, written information and relevant resources to children families and professionals, and bereavement advice for schools.
Childhood Bereavement Network
Telephone: 020 7843 6309
The Childhood Bereavement Network (CBN) is the hub for those working with bereaved children, young people and their families across the UK, and can signpost to sources of help.
Marie Curie Cancer Care
Telephone: 0800 716 146
Marie Curie hospices can help children and teenagers if they need bereavement care or counselling. Resources available to download or order by phone include booklets about teenage grief, talking to children when someone close is very ill and helping children when someone close dies.
Other Bereavement Services
The Compassionate Friends is a charitable organisation of bereaved parents, siblings and grandparents dedicated to the support and care of other bereaved parents, siblings, and grandparents who have suffered the death of a child or children. It offers support both directly to bereaved families and indirectly by fostering understanding and good practice amongst professionals concerned with child death and by increasing public awareness.
Also has a website and forum for surviving siblings - tcfsiblingsupport.org.uk.
Cruse Bereavement Care
Helpline: 0844 477 9400 Open from 9.30am – 5pm
This organisation promotes the well-being of bereaved people, and helps them to understand their grief and cope with their loss. As well as the helpline, Cruse has local branches providing face-to-face support and practical advice.
Cruse also has a youth involvement project with its own website, which is designed for young people by young people – www.rd4u.org.uk
Self-help and social and support network for young widowed men and women as they adjust to life after the death of their partner – whether that was a month, a year, or ten years ago.
SOBS is a self-help organisation which exists to meet the needs and break the isolation of those bereaved by the suicide of a close relative or friend.
RoadPeace provides emotional and practical support to those bereaved or injured in a road crash.
For parents and family members of a baby who has died suddenly and unexpectedly. They provide leaflets and information for bereaved parents and health professionals.
London Friend (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Bereavement Helpline
Helpline: 020 7837 3337 Tuesdays 7.30pm – 9.30pm
Offers support and advice to lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people who have been bereaved or are preparing for bereavement.
The Child Death Helpline
Helpline: 0800 282 986
Additional freephone number for all mobiles 0808 800 6019
Open every evening 7pm – 10pm Monday to Friday 10am – 1pm Tuesday and Wednesday 1pm-4pm
A helpline for anyone affected by the death of a child of any age, from prebirth to adult, under any circumstances, however recently or long ago.
A national charity supporting families who have been bereaved as a result of murder or manslaughter.