How parents can help a grieving child and tackle tricky conversations about death

Marie Claire Dorking
·7-min read
How to help a child with grief and bereavement. (Getty Images)
How to help a child with grief and bereavement. (Getty Images)

Losing a loved one is a heartbreaking experience at any age, but for children who may find it difficult to understand their feelings, coping with a bereavement can be a real struggle.

The coronavirus pandemic has meant that more children than usual are currently having to deal with the grieving process.

Childline delivered 3,379 counselling sessions to young people about bereavement between April 2020 and the end of January 2021.

Children who speak to the NSPCC’s Childline service say they feel confused, scared, numb or out of control, with some left wondering if they’re ever going to feel ok again.

One 17-year-old girl told the councillors she was "struggling" with her feelings of grief after her grandmother recently passed away. "She provided me with a lot of emotional support and now that she’s gone I’m really struggling," she says.

"The coronavirus has also [been] making me feel anxious and I’ve started to have panic attacks. Due to this new lockdown, I’m finding it hard to reach out to my friends about my struggles because I get so anxious. I don’t know what to do, I’m so scared."

Read more: How coronavirus measures have impacted funerals and the grieving process

Another 13-year-old told counsellors she was struggling with a "whole whirlwind of emotions" since her granddad had passed away.

"I went through a very dark period during the first and second lockdown and I don’t want to go through this again," she said. 

"I want to remember the happy times and not the sad feelings about my granddad’s passing, but it’s hard when we’re in another lockdown.”

Children can struggle with their emotions when grieving the loss of a loved one. (Getty Images)
Children can struggle with their emotions when grieving the loss of a loved one. (Getty Images)

According to Wendy Robinson, service head at Childline, it can be much harder for children to process feelings of grieving or loss and it is therefore common for them to wonder if what they’re feeling is right or wrong.

Navigating those feelings during the pandemic has been even harder for some.

“We know that the pandemic has had a devastating impact on the lives of young people and many have sadly lost family members during this time," she explains.

“Since the first national lockdown Childline has delivered 3,379 counselling sessions with young people about bereavement.

“Some of the sessions that we’ve delivered on this issue have been directly linked to COVID, however other children have spoken to us about loved ones who have died for other reasons – with a number of them mentioning the impact of COVID restrictions which have meant they haven’t been able to spend time with that person in their final hours or attend their funeral."

Some may also struggle to understand the complex emotions they’re experiencing.

“For some, this has affected their mental health, exacerbating pre-existing issues, making them feel overwhelmed and unable to cope," Robinson continues.

"For others, this has made them think about their own mortality and some have said that the information about daily death rates has triggered difficult memories of loved ones who have died in the past."

Watch: Should grieving households be allowed to form 'bereavement bubbles'?

If you’re a parent or carer and you’re worried your child might be struggling with feelings of grief there are a few things you can do to help them, according to Childline.

Try to get them to open up

Encourage your child to talk to you or another trusted adult about how they’re feeling to help make them feel less alone.

Show them how to express themselves

Let know they can express their feelings on their own through creating art, writing a letter to the person they’ve lost, allowing themselves to cry or releasing any anger by screaming into a pillow.

Teach them that grief is personal

Remind them there’s no right or wrong way to feel and that everyone has their own way of dealing with loss.

"Let them know that how they feel may change over time but, that if they are still struggling a long time after someone has died then that’s ok and that it’s important they keep talking and expressing how they are feeling," adds Robinson.

Read more: Ask Anna: 'I'm lonely and sad since my mum died – how do I rebuild my life?'

Keep the discussion going

Reassure them that it’s ok to ask questions about how that person died or what is going to happen next. "If they do have any questions, encourage them to make a list that they can then share with a trusted adult," Robinson explains. "This can help a child feel more in control and less confused."

Encourage self-care

Make sure they are looking after themselves by eating well and getting enough sleep and rest. "Exercise and spending time outside can also help make a child feel calmer if they are struggling with stress," Robinson adds.

Bring in the experts

Sometimes, a child may want to talk to someone who doesn’t know them and they may worry about upsetting family members if they talk about their grief.

Children struggling with grief can talk to one of Childline's trained counsellors on 0800 1111 or via 1-2-1 chat on www.childline.org.uk

They can also visit Childline’s Calm Zone which is a source of support for children and young people during the pandemic.

Childline has reported an increase in calls about bereavement recently. (Getty Images)
Childline has reported an increase in calls about bereavement recently. (Getty Images)

How to talk to children about death

Be open and honest

“Talking about death can be a hard subject for adults and children alike, and often children may be scared to mention it in case they upset you,” explains Dr Max Malik, psychiatrist and owner of Elate Health.

“But it's important to be open and answer any questions they have. Don't be tempted to lie or sugar-coat the truth, or try to hide your pain. Reassure them that it's natural and healthy to cry and respond well to honesty.”

Dr Malik also suggests allowing children the opportunity to ask questions.

“Reassurance is key too. Let them talk about how they feel without worrying about upsetting you,” he adds.

Use stories to explain the natural cycle of life and death

According to Dipti Tait, hypnotherapist and author of Good Grief, children respond well to stories. 

“If we think about the bedtime story, it is a comforting time, and creates a safe place in the mind,” she says.

She suggests using storytelling to help children link their experience to something else that feels familiar, “This will create a comfortable reference point in their mind,” she explains.

“For example, using the explanation of the cycle of nature: A summertime leaf living happily on a tree for that season and then falling off in the autumn and decomposing and disappearing in winter, but in its place a springtime bud regrows and turns into another summertime leaf a year later, can be a nice way of talking about how death is part of our natural world."

Read more: Recognising and dealing with grief is key to mental health during the pandemic

Label new emotions to give them a safe place in the mind

Tait says that when children feel a new emotion, the unfamiliarity can cause confusion as they won't yet have developed a reference point for this emotion and what to do with it.

“If it is negative feeling, that discomfort of not knowing what to do with it can spill over into over-worry,” she explains. “To help alleviate the worry, it is a good idea to explore the new emotions with the child to create some familiarity with it and this can help with processing it appropriately.

“For example if the child understands sadness, but has never felt guilt. If they describe guilt and link it to sadness, their brain can file it away as a relevant emotion to feel in the circumstance.”

Seek further help

If it is proving tricky to help your child understand, it could be worth seeking expert advice. “Sometimes children cannot cope with these events on their own so I would advise talking to an appropriately qualified specialist for further help,” Dr Malik says. 

“There is never any shame in seeking help, we do it all the time for a broken leg so why not for our minds?”

Watch: Rashida Jones was in 'grief shock' after becoming a parent and losing her own mother.

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