Bereavement during the pandemic: helping your grieving child

Illustration of children in silhouetteThe death of someone close to your child is painful at any time but losing someone you love during a pandemic can make grieving even harder.

As a family you may not have your usual sources of support available. Our normal traditions that we associate with death may not be an option such as visiting the bereaved or attending a funeral. It is still possible, however, to support your grieving child.

Children’s understanding of death

In order to support your child, it is helpful to think about what they understand about death. Children’s understanding of death depends on their developmental stage. Babies and very young children experience death as change and as an absence of someone but do not have a concept of death.

Pre-school children might understand that death is different from being alive but are unlikely to realise that death is permanent. They might frequently ask when they are going to see their loved one again. They are likely to get confused if they are told that gran has ‘gone to sleep’ or has been lost.

By school age most children begin to understand that death is permanent. They start to realise that death is something that happens to everyone so they can become worried about their own safety and that of others.

As the adult you want to be available to your child. However, you may also be struggling to cope with and talk about the loss. It’s good to be honest about this with your child and try to enlist the support of another trusted adult as part of a wider network of support.

Supporting a grieving child

  • Children and young people need clear and honest information about the death of their loved one that takes into account their understanding of death. It is helpful, when possible, to prepare your child for an imminent death. As your child reaches new stages in life they may have new questions that they want to ask.
  • Your child needs reassurance that they are safe, family members are safe and they will be cared for. Having conversations about their fears will offer the opportunity of reassurance.
  • Children and young people can sometimes feel that they are to blame for the death. They need reassurance that the death is not their fault and they didn’t cause it by their actions or thoughts.
  • Children and young people need the opportunity to ask questions and to be listened to carefully. They might not want to upset you, so it is helpful to try and have other trusted adults available even if it can only be by phone or an online call. It is helpful to let the school know that your child has been bereaved.
  • Children and young people need to know that it is okay to feel whatever way they feel; there is no right or wrong way to grieve.
  • Parents and carers can help children and young people find ways to cope with overwhelming feelings and show that they are available to comfort them. Children can be helped to express feelings in many ways such as through drawing, play, talking or physical activity. Sometimes creating a memory box or jar can be comforting.
  • Where possible, children and young people should be supported to be involved in preparations for the funeral and the service itself. No one, however, should be forced to take part. If involvement is not possible due to the pandemic, consider how you might create a form of remembrance at home.
  • Children and young people benefit from continued routine activities.
  • They need opportunities to remember the person that has died, for example, by looking through photos or talking about them.

Related links

How can I help support a grieving child? - a film by Child Bereavement UK (3m16s)

Child Bereavement UK has published a number of downloadable help sheets, including this one for parents: What helps grieving children and young people

Building resilience in bereaved children: for parents and carers

The free book Lost for Words is written by bereaved children for bereaved children.

Winston’s Wish has helpful advice about what can be done if a child cannot attend a funeral due to the pandemic.

Seasons for Growth (the Notre Dame Centre) - Seasons for Growth is a programme for children, young people or adults who have experienced significant change or loss.

Bereavement - Kinship - The kinship care charity