Last Updated: Monday, November 15, 2021

Supporting children and young people through bereavement

What is this?

Find out how learners can be supported through bereavement and resources that are available for practitioners, families and learners.

Who is this for?

All education practitioners.

Many children and young people experience the death of a close family member during childhood [1]. Children born into the lowest income households are at higher risk of being bereaved of a parent or sibling than those born into higher income households [2].

bereavement

What are common grief reactions?

Reactions to loss are called grief reactions. These include physical sensations, feelings, behaviours and thoughts. Download: Common grief reactions.

A child’s developmental stage will affect their understanding of death and their reactions. This is explored further on the Child Bereavement UK website.

The learning environment offers some learners time out from grieving, a place to escape the reality of their loss and to feel comforted by friends and their routine. For others, their grief reactions mean that they struggle to concentrate and engage in learning.

The impact of grief

Children and young people are impacted by loss but most children, with the right support, are not affected negatively on a long-term basis. They do not need specialist input but can thrive when their grief is acknowledged and supported by the key adults in their lives. Normalising grief does not mean, however, that we are diminishing the pain that learners can experience.

For all learners, an important protective factor is a key supportive adult in their lives. Some parents or carers struggle to be able to offer the support the child needs; they may be overwhelmed by their own grief and the practical consequences of the death. Other adults such as teachers, youth workers and early years practitioners can offer that crucial support.

There is research that bereavement can increase the risk of negative outcomes for children and young people although many of these outcomes can be linked to the risk factors such as poverty that were in their household before the bereavement.

What do children and young people who have experienced bereavement need?

  • Adequate information about the death that is developmentally suitable
  • Fears and anxieties to be addressed
  • Reassurance they are not to blame
  • Careful listening
  • Validation of their feelings
  • Help with overwhelming feelings
  • Involvement and inclusion
  • Continued routine activities
  • Modelling of grief reactions
  • Opportunities to remember

Download: ‘The Bereavement Needs of Grieving Children’.

How can practitioners help?

Practitioners can support the adults who are the child’s support system and can also directly support the child by acknowledging their loss, listening to them and supporting the child with what they are feeling. Some of us worry that we will say the wrong thing and make matters worse. Remember, however, it can be very hard for a learner if no one acknowledges what has happened, particularly if they know that school staff are aware of their loss.

There are useful resources listed below that can help practitioners to consider how best to support grieving children and young people.

Traumatic grief

Some learners experience traumatic grief. In a traumatic bereavement, the way children and young people experience or understand the death can lead to lasting distress and impact on their everyday life.

The UK Trauma Council have created a suite of resources that give school staff and practitioners the knowledge and tools they need to identify, help and support children and young people experiencing a traumatic bereavement.

Improvement questions

  • To what extent are practitioners in my establishment aware of the impact of grief and recognise that additional support needs may ensue?
  • What awareness do staff have about how to support a grieving child or young person?
  • How are staff made aware of learners who have experienced significant bereavements and the plans to support them?

Download(s)

PDF file: Common grief reactions (156 KB)

PDF file: The bereavement needs of grieving children (115 KB)

[1] 3 Paul, S. and Vaswani, N. (2020) ‘The prevalence of childhood bereavement in Scotland and its relationship with disadvantage: the significance of a public health approach to death, dying and bereavement’ Palliative Care & Social Practice Vol. 14: 1–12

[2] Parsons S. Long-term impact of childhood bereavement: preliminary analysis of the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70), 2011, Long-term impact of childhood bereavement - Preliminary analysis of the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70) - UCL Discovery