Child bereavement: Helping the young cope with loss

Loss is tough for anyone but it can be especially hard for children who often find it difficult to accept or even understand that a parent or loved one has died. As part of Children’s Mental Health Week we spoke to Robert Moroney, Bereavement Services Co-ordinator at St John’s Hospice, about helping children cope with grief.

Robert, a psychiatric nurse turned social worker set up the bereavement services at the Hospice 14 years ago. One of his key bits of advice when it comes to helping children who have lost someone close is to remind them it’s okay to feel upset.

Robert says, “It’s important to remind the child and the people around them that the stress and sadness they are feeling is normal. Someone is right to be upset when someone they love has died.

It’s good to talk

“The natural instinct is to try and stop it but in fact you want to encourage a child to be upset, to talk about what they’re feeling. Children aged four to six tend to take responsibility for things, that’s part of their development stage so it’s about helping them understand it’s not their fault.”

It’s also important to not hide the tragedy of death from a child. Robert says, “Sometimes children aren’t told someone is ill or is dying, so they might only realise something is happening once that person has died. That in itself can lead to a sense of loss and distress for them. It’s about encouraging families to include children in what is happening and allowing them to grieve.

“Of course, you want there to be a balance so it’s good to have certain times in the week, for example, reading a bedtime story. There are lots of stories that have threads of loss in them, that opens a dialogue. It’s then about keeping that dialogue open.”

The importance of play

A good way to get a child to open up about their feelings is through games.

“I often use play – it’s a more relaxing setting for a child. Then you can start asking questions gently, it’s about keeping it as natural as you can and to make it feel non-threatening. It’s about distracting one part of their mind and normalising things so that they open up. A child will talk to you if they’re engaged in play.”

As well as working directly with children, Robert also teaches adults how to help a grieving child.

He says,  “An example that stands out best for me was a grandparent looking after their five year old granddaughter. Her mother had died and she didn’t have contact with her father. About two weeks after her mum had died, her grandmother contacted us to say that things were really difficult, especially at night time.

“I went to meet the grandmother before meeting the little girl, and spoke to her about how she’d explained death to her granddaughter. She had said, and she had the best of intentions, “Mummy has gone to sleep and she’s not going to wake up again.” It was very well-meaning but for a young child, the thought of then going to bed and going to sleep becomes a terrifying prospect. So it’s often helping people choose the words, the timing and also being prepared that you might have to explain it several times.”

Explaining loss

It’s also important for carers to understand that as a child grows, the way of explaining the loss of a loved one needs to change.

“For example, a four-year-old doesn’t necessarily understand ‘forever’, whereas a seven or eight-year-old does and this needs to be taken into consideration when trying to get a child to understand what has happened.”

Robert and the Bereavement team also work with teachers. He says, “It’s like working with a parent. Teachers sometimes feel they don’t know what to say. They want the child’s education to continue but something has happened and that cannot be ignored. So it’s often about advising teachers to have a session with the class about death and dying and how that can be done. I used to go to schools to talk to children about it. It’s about really opening up the dialogue so the child who has had the loss can freely talk about what they’re going through. Often the child is having difficulties at school so it’s about reminding the school that they need to be a little more flexible in how they deal with the pupil.”

The Child Bereavement Service is free and provided by a specialist team with a long track record of giving practical and emotional support to individuals and families before and after a bereavement. If you’d like to know more about our Child Bereavement Service and how we could support you or a loved one please click here.

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