Support for military children who are grieving

It's common that military people who die have young families and children. Here's how we can understand and support them.

When an active duty service person dies, it is quite likely that they’re young. And quite often, they leave children behind. A lot of these children are very young, or even babies. Young children and babies grieve, so it’s very important we give them the best support we can.

Here’s how you can understand, and support, bereaved military children.

The grief process

As bereaved children grow up, their grief may change. It’s common for children who lost a parent when they were very young to grieve as an adult. This may be affected by certain life events:

  • Starting to drive and seeing other parents taking children out for practice 
  • Getting married
  • Other significant milestones

Every child is unique, and this is uncharted territory for both of you. There is no right or wrong way for children to grieve. We have shared some common signs of grief in children to help you understand what they might be feeling.

However, for the children of service people who have died, there are other factors that can affect their grief.  

If you are living in service accommodation children may worry about:

  • Losing their home
  • Moving house
  • Changing school 
  • Losing friends 
  • Sudden changes 

Reassure them that they’re safe, and that you’ll keep them up-to-date on what’s happening. Let them know that nothing is going to happen straight away.

Where the death is an operational death, it’s likely that it’ll be covered by the media. This media intrusion may continue for many years. Understandably, you may want to protect your children from this. However, trying to shield your child from the media coverage may cause problems down the road. 

It’s very likely that their friends will have heard about the news, or your child might come across it on social media. Because of this, it’s much better for your child to hear about what happened from you. You don’t want to risk them only hearing a distorted version from other places.

Try to answer all their questions about the death in a simple, but truthful way. Don’t hold back important information, but share what is appropriate. Be guided by their age and what you know is suitable.

When a military death happens far from home, it can be difficult for children to understand the reality of what happened. Having a parent away is perfectly normal, which can make it harder for children to understand that they’re not coming home.

Remember that it might take a while for them to process the death.

Military funerals can be a lot for children to handle. You should ask whether your child would like to go to the funeral, or, if there is one, a repatriation ceremony. If appropriate and they want to do so, let them see the body and say goodbye. Some children find it helpful to write a letter, or draw a picture, and put it in the coffin.

Read more advice on children at funerals here.

Memories are a great comfort, but what about bereaved children who are too young to have memories? 

With military deaths, there are often pregnant widow/partners, babies and toddlers left behind. Many children grow up never knowing a parent.

It’s easy to think they might not grieve, but bereaved military children can grieve for what they have never had. This is common if they have older siblings. 

To comfort them, you can share photos of them at the funeral, or at the repatriation ceremony.


Further help

We’ve also got more advice in this downloadable leaflet: Supporting bereaved children and young people in military families.

Read our guides for supporting grieving children and young people here.