Tips for supporting bereaved children
The loss of a parent family member or friend can be the most profound experience of a young child's life, resonating long into the future.
Unfortunately, death remains a taboo area in many schools, communities and even families. It is a notoriously difficult area to discuss and can induce much anxiety in the adult and consequently the child too. What so often happens is families and schools can unwittingly 'conspire to silence': better nothing said than something painful or hurtful. Sadly, this rarely works and can often leave the child unhelpfully fantasizing about what happened and what may happen to them.
Here are my five top tips for supporting a bereaved child:
1) D.E.A.L with it
My first piece of advice is for parents or teachers to - Drop Everything And Listen. As adults, we might not know the 'right' thing to say (there rarely is a right thing) or what to do, but one thing we can do is to listen. Listening is not just a neutral activity, it involves actively preparing the time and space for it to occur and is often initially best achieved in a 1:1 situation. Find a room, plan the time and listen to whatever needs to be said (it may not necessarily be about the death).
2) Note down the dates
The anniversary of the death, the birthday of the deceased and the date of the funeral are likely to become very significant and cyclical dates in the child's calendar year. Talk to the child before the dates come around, plan and prepare a simple activity together to help contain potential difficult feelings
3) Expect anger
Anger is the most common emotion for bereaved children, it will be there, somewhere! It is often expressed to those most trusted and loved. Channelling anger in physical ways (sports, dance, martial arts) or artistic ways (writing, painting, music) can be very helpful.
4) Use the words 'died' and 'death'
We may feel it is more sensitive to say 'passed away' or 'gone to sleep, forever' but such comments may leave young children feeling very confused. Using words such as 'died' can have the effect of diminishing death's otherwise unwieldy and shadowy power.
5) Who knows?
This takes time and is particularly relevant for school but the parent or teacher can ask the bereaved child whom, if anybody, they would like to know about the bereavement and what would they like them to know. As well as providing friendship support, this can also help prepare the child with the words, feelings and resilience to communicate what happened, if and when asked.