Bereavement During Childhood: How to Support Young People with Grief
My partner’s children have been grieving the loss of their mother for a year now, and it’s been a difficult road to navigate ever since.
We’ve been shocked at how difficult it’s been to find advice about how to support young people with grief, both online and locally.
The Queen’s recent passing has opened up the conversation of loss across social media, which has included how to support young people with grief.
Grief is different for all of us, but for young people it can be even more complex whilst they’re still trying to learn about the world around them and how to process their emotions.
There’s no wrong or right way to grieve, but it is known that trying to avoid the grief can have long-lasting consequences if a person’s not supported well.
How to Support Young People with Grief
It can be difficult to know how to support young people with grief, especially when it happens unexpectedly, as it did for my stepchildren.
I’ve collated advice on ways to support children and teenagers through grief below, in the hopes it helps others avoid the struggle we’ve had.
This advice has been found from grief specialist organisations (referenced below) and from personal experience of this past year and my within my career as a social worker.
If you have any other advice to add, please use the comment box below so we can make this as resourceful as possible.
How Grief Can Present Across Childhood Stages
What children understand and experience death as tends to be different at each developmental stage:
Whilst this is a very young age, babies can still respond to loss and experience grief.
They might feel the separation if it was somebody who cared for them regularly, such as a parent.
They may interpret this as abandonment, which can cause them anxiety.
Babies quickly work out their primary caregiver is, so if this person dies they can feel distress when other people (who smell, feel and sound different ) look after them.
Other people’s grief is also easily picked up by babies.
Like babies, they can recognise somebody is now absent and then show anxiety or anger about this.
It’s common for them to cry louder, display more anger, be withdrawn and lose interest in things like their toys or food.
They might look for the person in rooms or places they used to commonly spend time with them.
3- 5 Years
At this point you can start to have conversations about death, but they don’t understand what it means entirely.
Children at this stage have limited cognitive ability, so might not react much when they’re first told; They might immediately go and play, or change the subject.
At this age (and older), children can believe they caused the death, so it’s vital they’re told clearly it was not their fault.
During this stage children start to gain a larger understanding of death.
They understand the person won’t return and that they themselves will also die one day.
Recognising this might cause anxious feelings, so answering any questions they have is key.
Some may want details about funerals and what happens to bodies when they die.
This can be difficult to discuss, but it’s important to answer to help them learn and understand.
At this age many children can show compassion and empathy towards others who are also grieving.
They can learn this by watching adults use coping mechanisms for their own grief and may copy these.
Due to this, if some adults aren’t talking about their feelings, the child might learn to disguise their own.
If the adult appears to be struggling, the child might hide their own emotions to protect the adult.
It’s important the child is given permission to show their emotions and talk about their feelings. The adult talking about their own feelings can encourage the child to also do this.
Emotional Signs of Grief in Children
These tend to be in line with the common stages of the grief cycle we experience as adults and include:
Some laugh when first told the news of the death or don’t believe it, which is how the brain protects itself.
They might react by going and playing a game or tidying their room, which is a distraction whilst they process it.
Some may cry or even get angry.
This is another protective mechanism which is a normal stage of grief.
They might not want to visit certain places, like school, in case the person returns home while they are out.
Behaviours like tidying obsessively may occur, in case the person comes home and will be impressed.
They might search for the person around the home, or visit their workplace.
This will pass in time.
Grief is painful and during the process many feel angry that the person has been taken from them.
This anger can turn inwards onto themselves, by self-harm, abusing substances or neglecting their hygiene.
It could also turn outward, so they might get into verbal or physical fights often, have tantrums or become disruptive at school.
Another way to express this is committing crimes or anti-social behaviour.
This can be a distraction and can include them pleading for the return of that person.
Some ask a God or Higher Being for the person to come back in exchange for them to behave better.
Cruse describe guilt as ‘anger turned internally’.
If a young person loses someone very close to them, they can think it was their own fault.
This guilt increases if they were angry with the person before they died.
Guilt can look like feeling upset if they’ve forgotten about that person at some point during the day, or going over ways they could have prevented the death themselves.
Once they come to accept the person isn’t coming back, depression can occur.
They might have no interest in hobbies, food or seeing people.
Appearing confused or in a daze can be common.
Feeling anxious about other people dying can also increase.
This is the end stage of the grief cycle and there’s no knowing how long it will take to get there.
Whilst they accept the loss, it doesn’t mean everything goes back to normal though.
They will still feel upset and their life will never be the same, but they will be trying to move forward.
Physical Signs of Grief in Children
It’s important to recognise that these behaviours are usually temporary and happen for many children.
Once they feel secure again and are working through the grief, these tend to disappear.
If they don’t, talk to a GP for advice.
Physical signs include:
- Mood swings and tantrums
- Aggressive behaviours
- Psychosomatic illness: They feel unwell or have pains in places physically which represent the emotional pain. This can include stomach pain and headaches. Fearing illness can also evolve, revealing itself through obsessive hand washing, avoiding objects touched by others and showing a fear of germs.
- Being withdrawn and isolating themselves from the world
- Under/overeating, or becoming fussier with foods.
- Sleeping more/less or having broken sleep, or persistent nightmares.
- Regressing back to younger childhood behaviours such as tantrums, sucking their thumb, eating with fingers, using baby talk and bedwetting.
How to Support a Young Person with Grief
It can be daunting to work out how to support young people with grief, so here’s some ideas:
Don’t show alarm if they respond in a way you didn’t expect.
Reassure them that it’s OK to show their feelings however they need to.
Never make comments that shut their feelings down, such as “we’re strong, we don’t cry” or “boys don’t cry”.
Keep the information simple and clear. When explaining the person has died, use clear wording such as ‘they have died’ rather than ‘gone to sleep’, to ensure they understand it’s final and not temporary.
Talk openly with them and encourage them to ask questions whenever they have them.
A fictional bedtime story I used with my son that helped open the discussion, was Badger’s Parting Gifts*.
Teach safe ways to express their feelings (such as anger), where they won’t hurt themselves or others. This could be punching pillows, exercising or listening to music with lyrics they resonate with them.
Remember they might direct anger at you, because you’re their safe person and it is not to be taken personally. When they do this remind them you’re there for them and care.
If the child is bargaining, remember this might help them to feel more in control and this stage will pass.
Reassure they’re not responsible for the person’s death. It’s not their fault and nothing they could have done would have changed the outcome.
If they appear depressed, encourage them to take it one day at a time, and to find tiny positives in their day. This could be as little as ‘I managed to eat breakfast today’ or they got out of bed.
Maintaining routines can help them feel secure, even if they don’t enjoy some parts of the it.
Do positive activities that encourage them to feel good feelings when thinking of that person sometimes, such as a meal on the person’s birthday and days out to that person’s favourite places.
How Teenagers Grieve
Teenagers can have intense reactions to death, because of the hormonal and developmental changes they go through during puberty.
They understand the long-term implications of losing someone they love, and how emotionally challenging it will be.
Whilst some teens openly grieve, others may do the opposite.
Some may appear mature in their grief, but they’re still a young person who needs to be nurtured and supported as such.
Ways they might experience their grief:
- Revert to childish behaviours younger than their years
- Not talk about their feelings at all and appear like they have none
- Seek support from people away from the family
- Act like an adult to take over from the person who passed away
- Worry about who will care for them and pay the bills
- Self harm or self-medicate using substances or alcohol
- Engage in risky or dangerous behaviours as a distraction from the pain
- Express anger more often; They might get into fights, become quite argumentative and suddenly have a lot more frustration.
- They might become hyperaware of death and losing those around them, and explore mortality a lot.
How to Help Teens with Grief
When looking at how to support young people with grief, there are different options for teenagers.
Reassure them it’s OK to confide in whoever they feel safe with, whether it’s friends, family or a therapist.
Gently encourage them to open up about how they feel. This could be done during a relaxing activity like baking, drawing or even driving home from school so it feels less like a formal, intense chat.
Talk about the good memories you have of the person they lost, which might encourage them to talk if they usually avoid it. Listening to you talk about it can help them feel some of the positive feelings about the person they lost, that can get hidden during grief.
Encourage and role model constructive behaviours they can use to distract themselves at times, such as art, crafts, baking, sport and reading.
Be mindful of them not to distract from the pain all of the time, by expressing your own pain when appropriate; Let them see you having a cry, watching old videos of the person and discussing how you feel about their passing.
Show them it’s OK to express these things rather than hide them.
Give them resources they can use independently, such as:
- Online resources like Hope Again, the teen website from Cruse. Here they can learn from other young people how to cope with grief and feel less alone.
- Giving them a journal where they can write out their feelings privately.
- Meditation and mindfulness free apps for their phones.
- Relevant podcasts and documentaries they can listen to in their own time.
There’s no time-limit for grief, but as time goes on, a person should be moving forward with their life whilst still feeling it.
When a person becomes stuck in their grief, like it’s become their way of life, this is called complicated grief.
This is more likely to happen if the person who died was a parent/primary carer, sibling or best friend.
It becomes even more of a risk if the death was sudden, unexpected or due to suicide.
The young person may feel like it was their fault and they could have prevented it, or may try to deal with the stigma that suicide brings for loved ones.
Further risks for developing complicated grief include:
- Having difficulty with resilience
- Poor coping skills
- Having lost multiple people
- Other losses alongside such as parents divorcing
Signs of Complicated Grief
These are common signs for both children and adults:
- Negative outlook on the future
- Not wanting to do anything or spend time with friends and loved ones
- Finding it hard to trust others
- Bitterness about the death
- Being agitated, frustrated and argumentative more often
- Struggling to move on with their life
- Difficulty accepting the death even happened
- No change at all in the grief process, as if they’re frozen within it
How to Help Young People with Grief that’s
How to support young people with grief of this kind can be more complex.
Encourage them to talk about their feelings as much as you can.
Talk to the GP if they’re showing signs of depression or suicidal ideation.
Do your research using grief specialists, like Cruse, MIND and any local services (see resources below).
Should They Go to the Funeral?
This is always worth considering carefully as it’s a way to process the grief.
I believe in giving them the choice after explaining to them why we have funerals (to say goodbye with family and friends around us).
To help them make the decision, explain what happens at the funeral, from start to finish.
Explain that people may cry, smile, and some may be quiet, and reassure them they can show their feelings how they wish.
Offer them the chance to help plan it.
They might want to choose some music, the types of flowers or even write a speech which they or someone else can read out.
Assure them they can change their mind last minute about attending if they want and nobody will be upset.
Other Ways to Say Goodbye
If they don’t want to go to the funeral, they can celebrate the person’s life in other ways including:
- Making a memory box full of sentimental things, clothing, photos and cards from that person
- Writing a letter to the person who died
- Visit the grave when they are ready to
- Talk about the good times you had over a nice meal or when watching some films of them.
Resources on How to Support Young People with Grief
The following are a few national organisations that offer resources on how to support young people with grief:
I’ve recorded an episode on MindVox Pod about how to support young people with grief to go alongside this post.
Child Bereavement UK
Child Bereavement UK help families to rebuild their lives when a child grieves or when a child dies.
They support children and young people (up to the age of 25) when someone important to them has died, and parents when a baby/child of any age dies.
Mental health organisation MIND offer advice for how to support young people with grief over the loss of the Queen, and information about how to support mental health in general.
Leading bereavement charity Cruse offers advice, support and grief counselling.
This is a website for young people to access, created by Cruse.
Hope Again is a safe place where young people can learn how to cope with their grief from their peers.
No payment was received for this post. It is a post that contains my own research from the above organisations and all opinions are honest and my own.
*Contains Amazon affiliate link, meaning if you buy through this link I might make a tiny commission.