Feelings, responses and reactions to a death in the family
The ways in which families make sense of and cope with their grief differs enormously and everyone’s bereavement journey is unique. But grief is normal, very necessary and needs to be expressed. Probably the most famous formulation of the stages of grief was developed by Dr Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. According to this model there are five stages:
- Denial (They can’t have died)
- Anger (Why me? It’s not fair)
- Bargaining (If only… or What if…)
- Depression (What is the point of carrying on?)
- Acceptance (learning to live with the new reality)
Not everyone goes through all these stages or does so in a prescribed order. However, they can be useful tools to help you understand feelings and put them into context.
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. If grief is hidden, the child will think that grief is not an acceptable feeling.
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. Talk to them in language they understand by using straightforward words such as ‘dead’ and ‘dying’. Check that they have understood and encourage them to ask questions. Avoid using euphemisms (such as ‘went away’ or ‘went to sleep’) which may scare or confuse children. Find more information on talking to children about death here.
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. However, the family may also have suffered through a long period of stress which has had a major impact on everyday life.
If the death is sudden 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. 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 an opportunity to talk about the person who has died is by making a memory box or book with them. They can 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 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.
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.
Child Bereavement UK supports families and educates professionals when a baby or child dies or is dying, or when a child is facing bereavement.
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.
Telephone: 0800 090 2309 Monday-Friday 9am-5pm
The supportline offers confidential support and practical information on all aspects of terminal illness.There is a range of resources on the website about dealing with grief, and supporting grieving children and teenagers.
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 throughout the UK, and has an online directory of ‘open access’ services for bereaved children across the country.
Daisy’s Dream supports children and their families who have been affected by the life-threatening illness or death of someone close to them. Daisy’s Dream offers support and advice to families, professionals and anyone concerned about a grieving child across Berkshire and surrounding areas.
Telephone: 01392 826 064
Balloons is a charity that provides community-based support for children, young people and their families in 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.
Telephone: 02380 647550
Supports children and young people within Hampshire, who have a close relative or friend who has died or is terminally ill.
OLLY (Our Lost Love Years)
Telephone: 0151 709 2994 / 07545 560831
Provides support and activities for children and young people across Merseyside, who have lost a loved one.
Other Bereavement Services
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.
The Compassionate Friends
Helpline: 0345 123 2304 daily from 10am – 4pm and 7pm – 10pm
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. The helpline is always answered by a bereaved parent, who can offer support and information. They can also put callers in touch with their nearest local support group or contact. Also has a website and forum for bereaved siblings – tcfsiblingsupport.org.uk.
Cruse 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 – Hope Again.
Specialist support for bereaved families and anyone affected by a sudden infant death.
RoadPeace provides emotional and practical support to those bereaved or injured in a road crash.
Rosie Crane Trust
Helpline: 01460 55120 (24 hrs)
Support for bereaved parents after the loss of a son or daughter of any age.
SOBS (Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide)
Helpline: 0300 111 5065 9am – 9pm everyday
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.
Support after Murder and Manslaughter (SAMM)
Helpline: 0845 872 3440 / 0121 451 1618
Web site: www.samm.org.uk
A national charity supporting families who have been bereaved as a result of murder or manslaughter.
WAY Widowed and Young
Peer-to-peer support for men and women who were aged 50 or under when their partner died.