Whenever there's a death in the family, grief can be extremely difficult for both adults and children to cope with.  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. 

You may find trying to offer support to children overwhelming if you're also experiencing your own grief. It's important to 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 your grief is hidden, the child may try to hide theirs too.

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 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. It's OK to need additional help in coping with bereavement.

If you are concerned about a child, there are specific organisations that can help. Inform the school about their loss and see if there is anyone they can talk to in school if they need to. 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 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. 

Find organisations who might be able to help you here.