As a Cruse volunteer I support bereaved children and teenagers. The current restrictions are making supporting a bereaved child very difficult, but there are some things you can do to help children with grief during this pandemic.
At Cruse all our support is currently being carried out remotely over phone or internet (with the exception of some school visits). We’re all missing face-to-face contact, but it can be even harder for children. With a young child it’s just not possible for a volunteer to support them when you’re not there. It’s not realistic to expect them to sit still and just talk. We can however support parents and carers to help children themselves.
If you know a bereaved child or young person needing help, here are some of the things we suggest.
Eight ways to help a grieving child during the pandemic
1. Don’t expect them to grieve like adults
Children will not always react in the way we expect them to when someone dies. Children often dip in and out of grief – they need a time to play and take a break from intense feelings, so don’t be surprised if they are crying one moment and racing around laughing and playing normally the next.
2. Talk to them
Just like adults, children and young people need to talk about how they are feeling. Unlike adults, they may not know they need to or want to, and they may not know how to start, or understand when it is a convenient time. If possible be prepared to put aside what you are doing, and answer questions when they come up. You can also spend time playing or drawing to help get a conversation started – for example suggesting they draw a picture of their favourite memory, or of daddy doing what he enjoyed best, or of grandma being silly.
It can be really hard, especially if you are grieving yourself. If you are really not able to talk yet, try and find another friend or family member who can give them some time.
It’s OK to let them see you cry or know you are upset.
3. Tell them the truth
Tell them what has happened in clear language. Young children may not understand if you say things like 'gone to sleep' or 'passed away'. It is important to tell the truth about difficult subjects too - for example if someone has died by suicide. You can adapt the language for their level of understanding, and you don't need to tell them all the details straight away. But they will find out the truth from someone else eventually, so it is much better if you have talked to them about it first.
3. Help them let their feelings out
If your child or young person is ready to talk give them a chance to let out all their feelings. You can find ways to express these together, and be prepared for a range of feelings. Children can feel sad, angry, or guilty just like grown-ups, so let them know that whatever they are feeling it is OK.
Happy memories can be shared (see below) and bad feelings can be expressed – for example one family I worked with decided to drive to a remote spot to have a good shout and scream to let out their feelings of anger.
4. Help them keep hold of their memories
It’s important to find ways to help children keep the memory of the person who has died alive. I advise families not to box up possessions but to use them – let the child keep hold of clothes, use their things, and keep the person part of the family. A memory box is also a lovely way to keep a few momentos safe.
5. Don’t dismiss fears and anxieties
Especially at the moment, many children and young people are feeling very anxious. If a child has lost a parent or another close family member they might feel worried about losing others, and the constant talk about viruses and pandemics is not helping.
If a child has worries, it can help to share them. We can’t promise that everything will be fine, but try to reassure them, and let them know what everyone is doing to try and keep safe.
If you are finding the situation very stressful yourself this might be another situation where finding someone else to talk to the child might help.
6. Don’t let anyone put pressure on them to ‘step up’
Sometimes well-meaning friends and relatives can say things to children which put pressure on them. For example ‘Oh you’re the man of the house now’, or ‘Now, I’m sure you’re going to look after Daddy now.’ Make sure children and young people know it’s not their job to replace the person who’s died.
7. Revisit feelings and memories over the years
Bereavement and grief are not one-off events. When a child or young person has been bereaved they are going to have to adapt to their loss many different times. This will happen all through their life, as they get older and the way they understand the world grows.
As a child or young person grows up they will have many new experiences which will bring back their loss.
Moving or leaving schools, getting married, having children of their own, and many other experiences both big and small will bring challenges. Other situations can bring challenges, for example if a parent finds a new partner. With each of these milestones make sure you keep talking, and let the child and young person know that the person who died is still part of their life, even if they can no longer be together.
If you or a child or young person needs help, many of our Cruse branches offer support – contact your local branch to find out what they offer.
The Childhood Bereavement Network also lists services around the UK