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Bereavment in the Family

Grief, as defined in the dictionary, is a profound and intense sorrow. When a child experiences emotional bereavement, it can be just as deep as it is for an adult. The impact of grief can be devastating and persist for years.

Ernest Shepard, known for his unforgettable drawings, brought Winnie the Pooh to life and wrote in his memoirs about his mother's early death, which disrupted their happy family life. It took years before the cloud of sorrow lifted, and the natural joy of youth returned.

Shepard's mother's death was a turning point that introduced a period of grief and adjustment for the family. The joy and carefree nature typical of youth were replaced by a lingering sadness. Shepard described this time as a prolonged struggle, where the happiness that once characterised his childhood was notably absent.

It took years for the weight of this sorrow to lift. Gradually, Shepard and his family began to heal from their loss. The natural joy and exuberance of youth eventually returned, allowing Shepard to rediscover his creativity and passion for art. This journey from grief to recovery profoundly influenced his life and work, perhaps adding depth and sensitivity to his beloved illustrations of Pooh and his friends.

Shepard's ability to capture the innocence and wonder of childhood in his drawings is a testament to his resilience and artistic talent. His personal experiences, including the sorrow of losing his mother, undoubtedly shaped his perspective and contributed to the enduring charm and emotional richness of his illustrations.

Every day, children in England and Wales endure the loss of their closest family members. On any given day, 40 to 50 children under 16 lose a mother or father. It's common to refer to bereaved children, as well as children of divorced parents, as members of single-parent families. Most carry the deep scars of loss, which should never be underestimated. Children who have experienced the death of a parent or sibling have unique challenges and needs that must be recognised and addressed to prevent undue suffering that may extend into adulthood.

Numerous organisations have emerged to provide support for those who are grieving. (See list at end of article). However, many of us, regardless of our social status or community involvement, should also recognise the importance of being more empathic towards the emotional struggles people face. We routinely sign up for first-aid training, donate blood, and offer parts of our bodies for medical purposes. We engage in volunteer work to assist the homeless and the hungry. But do we make an effort to attend seminars or courses in bereavement counselling? It's often said that only those who have experienced grief themselves can truly comprehend and aid others in their healing process. In my own experience, these individuals are the most sincere when it comes to offering words of comfort. For instance, can a married woman fully grasp the depth of grief until her own husband passes away. Conversely, at times, we might find it challenging to understand another person's sorrow because we are intimately familiar with our own. Your widowed friend might not experience pain in the same way you do, and her children may not miss the same things as your own. To truly assist them, it's essential to identify and address their individual needs.

Parents and educators are typically tasked with teaching children about the facts of life, but have you ever thought about imparting the facts of death? Regrettably, this concept is often brushed aside as macabre, disheartening, or unnecessary, mainly due to our ignorance and fear. It's impractical to cover all aspects of bereavement comprehensively. However, most educators understand that each child has unique emotions and needs. In environments where discussing death is not considered taboo, questions are met with honest answers. Even the occurrence of a brief illness or separation is explained clearly. This approach ensures that families are better prepared for significant losses. While it can't completely shield against shock and grief, a child who knows that the adults in their life are approachable and willing to listen to their concerns can find great comfort in this fact when a tragedy strikes.

Looking back at history, we can see that in Victorian times, young children were exposed to death as a part of life. It was common for them to assist in preparing a deceased family member for a viewing, or even to witness their mother's childbirth or the burial of siblings. Funerals were as familiar to them as weddings, and children's literature of that era frequently referenced death, often with sentimental or religious overtones that could be as terrifying as today's horror movies. In our modern age, we strive to shield children from this stark reality, and our discussions on death have become muffled, creating a mystifying silence around the topic. It has become culturally unacceptable for Westerners to openly mourn death, much like how discussions of sex were considered taboo in Victorian times. Even the word "death" is often avoided, replaced by softer phrases like "passed away" or "passed on," or, in some cases, more euphemistic expressions like "being taken."

In our well-intentioned but clumsy attempts to safeguard children from the harshness of reality, we inadvertently encourage their imaginations to flourish. While we don't wish to return to the elaborate mourning customs of the past, there's nothing wrong with shedding tears when someone you love has passed away. It's essential for children to witness a full spectrum of emotions, including both laughter and tears, in the adults around them.

The death of a grandparent is often the first significant experience of loss in a child's life. Even if a grandparent hasn't been a prominent figure in the family, a child will begin to grasp the consequences of death through discussions with their parents. Children who have lived with their grandparents, especially in situations where their mother works, their parents are divorced, or they have a disabled sibling, can be deeply affected by such a loss. Surprisingly, there is a strong bond in this two-generation gap that can make the impact of a grandparent's death particularly powerful. Sometimes, parents may overlook a child's sorrow, as they are dealing with their own grief over the loss of their parents. In some cases, parents may not inform their children of the news until after the grandparent's funeral, and teachers might not fully understand or support a child's request to be excused from school after their grandmother's death.

While the grieving process for a grandparent may not be as long-lasting as that following the death of a parent or sibling, it should never be disregarded. One thoughtful approach is to allow the child to choose a tangible memento, like a grandfather's watch or a grandmother's special photo album, as a way to remember their grandparent.

Children may have questions about the afterlife, asking if their grandparent is in heaven, but a simple explanation can be that after a grandparent has passed away, their physical body is laid to rest, much like an old jacket they no longer need, and it's left for us to bury.

Family life continues in the face of grief, and grieving is neither morbid nor self-indulgent. It's important for children to learn to accept their emotions as they grow, rather than carrying a heavy burden of suppressed grief. When a tragedy strikes, it's natural and healthy for the entire family to express their grief openly. In fact, both from a medical and emotional standpoint, this collective expression is the safest path toward recovery.

Professionals often refer to the period following a bereavement as a time of grieving, which can be accompanied by anxiety. Questions arise about when it begins, whether it means an absence of smiles and laughter, and how long it will last. There's a risk, that a language of bereavement creeps into our literature and conversations. This is an unfortunate consequence of the growing awareness of the potential serious consequences of bereavement, as it sets up expectations of mourning stages or grief phases as inevitable patterns for the future.


The concept of grief stages was notably developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss-American

psychiatrist. In her ground-breaking book "On Death and Dying" (1969), she introduced what is now widely known as the Kübler-Ross model, or the five stages of grief. These stages are:

  1. Denial: A refusal to accept the reality of the loss.

  2. Anger: Feelings of frustration and helplessness about the loss.

  3. Bargaining: Trying to negotiate a way out of the pain, often by making deals with a higher power.

  4. Depression: Deep sadness and regret about the loss.

  5. Acceptance: Coming to terms with the reality of the loss and moving forward.

While these stages were initially based on her work with terminally ill patients, they have since been widely applied to various types of loss and grief beyond just death. It's important to note that not everyone experiences all these stages, nor do they occur in a linear fashion; individuals may move through them in different orders or revisit certain stages multiple times.

Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut’s Dual Process Model

This model suggests that bereaved individuals oscillate between two types of coping:

  1. Loss-Oriented Coping: Dealing with the emotions and pain of the loss.

  2. Restoration-Oriented Coping: Managing the secondary stressors and changes that come with the loss, such as taking on new roles and responsibilities.

Colin Murray Parkes’ Four Phases of Grief

Parkes outlined four phases that people typically experience during grief:

  1. Numbness: Initial shock and disbelief.

  2. Yearning: Intense longing and searching for the deceased.

  3. Disorganisation and Despair: Realizing the full impact of the loss.

  4. Reorganisation: Gradually adjusting to life without the deceased.

George Bonanno’s Theory of Resilience

Bonanno’s research highlights that many people show resilience after loss and do not necessarily go through predefined stages. He emphasises the role of coping mechanisms and the individual’s ability to maintain functionality and even find positive meaning despite the loss.

These models offer various perspectives on how people experience and process grief, recognising that the journey through grief is highly individual and can involve a range of emotional and psychological responses.

Other researchers and psychologists have also contributed to the understanding of grief, including John Bowlby with his attachment theory, which outlines a four-phase model of mourning, and William Worden with his "Tasks of Mourning," which focuses on tasks to be completed for healthy grieving. However, Kübler-Ross's model remains one of the most well-known frameworks for understanding the grieving process.

However, a grieving period simply means that no one should be expected to suppress their sadness and pretend that life remains the same as before. Everyone needs time to adjust to life without the beloved person. Perhaps it would be more fitting to describe it as a breathing space, meant to alleviate emotional shock and sadness. While these feelings may not always come to an abrupt halt, this approach can prevent the onset of deep-seated, inward-looking worries that might lead to psychological issues years later.

The primary task is not to shield children from the sadness, as bereavement is inherently sorrowful. Instead, they need support during this sad time, support that includes loving and sensitive care.

The primary distinction between children's grieving and that of adults is that children experience intense periods of grief, but these are often shorter. I have witnessed how children's tears can swiftly transform into moments of laughter. However, their grieving process might extend much longer than we expect. Children tend to recover from things quickly, leaving us adults and the rest of the family to adapt and come to terms with a tragedy while they remain in the depths of sorrow. A child can endure profound sadness, and with each new experience, they encounter a fresh facet of grief. For instance, a significant event like the first day at school may make a child notice the absence of their mother while they are surrounded by other children with their parents, and they may feel a sense of longing for their father.

Many families believe that a professional approach is not the right one for children, as they don't neatly fit into predefined patterns of grief behaviour. I once worked with a child who was seen as a troublesome child rather than a child dealing with a problem. However, being aware of the range of emotions that grief can bring and the sometimes unusual symptoms that may surface is reassuring for both children and caregivers. Children do experience suffering, and I, for one, am thankful that this is acknowledged. These are not just statistics; they are young hearts that have been deeply wounded and let down. They need to understand that their bewildering emotions are natural and that someone is making an effort to comprehend them.

It seems to me that knowing what is considered normal is a practical approach for anyone trying to assist children. So, I hope that the following descriptions of grief reactions can help readers recognise that feelings like disbelief are quite common. This knowledge can enable them to support grieving children with understanding and compassion, instead of telling them to "pull themselves together."

Research indicates that shock is typically the initial response to a death in adults, resulting in a flood of sensations that can lead to physical collapse or a sense of numbness. Children, on the other hand, may react differently. They might respond with silence, withdrawal, or even intense outbursts of screaming. Very young children may experience a painful and bewildering sense of confusion rather than shock. They may not fully grasp what's happening, but they are sensitive to the highly disturbed and sad atmosphere at home, as well as the disruption of everything familiar to them.

Distraction isn't always the most effective strategy in these situations. For instance, if a baby cries, you can pick her up, and if a toddler is upset, you might offer a toy or a treat. Similarly, for school-age children, turning on a video might provide temporary relief, but it doesn't truly ease their grief. The medical approach for addressing shock is to provide warmth and rest, and this is a reasonable idea. Hugging the child and allowing them to express their emotions, even if it means crying, is essential. They need the space and time to be sad and to talk about their feelings regarding the loss of a mother, father, brother, or sister.

While adults may still be in a state of shock, they typically manage to handle practical matters like financial concerns, notices in the paper, and funeral arrangements, albeit in a somewhat detached state. However, for children who don't have specific tasks to attend to, this period can become increasingly lonely. If they are old enough, involving them in some of the arrangements, such as tidying their room for their grandmother's visit or helping choose flowers for the coffin, can be a way to provide them with a sense of participation and connection during this difficult time.

Denial is a common state in grieving, not just for children but also for adults in the early stages of bereavement. It's a phase where the reality of the person's death is denied or not fully accepted. People may know that their loved one is gone, and they might have even seen the deceased person's body, but their thoughts remain so focused on that person that they can't truly believe they're no longer present.

For children, this denial phase might be one of the most understandable parts of their grieving process. They've lost something, and it's as if they're trying to search for it. However, the fact that they can never find what they've lost leads to a deep-seated fear. They might describe feeling a nervous excitement, similar to the anticipation of Christmas, but it's a profoundly unhappy kind of excitement.

Anger, even in very young children, can be directed toward a parent who has left or at a God they may believe has taken away their mother or father. This anger, when it surfaces, may not always be expressed as outright fury; it could manifest as physical aggression, such as breaking toys or throwing tantrums.

In adolescence, this anger might be expressed more overtly and sometimes even violently. For example, Phil began stealing when his father was killed on a construction site. Despite being a loving family member before, his mother observed that he never kissed her goodnight anymore, and he seemed to have changed dramatically.

During the grieving process, various emotions like anxiety and guilt can become intertwined, particularly in the case of children, and these emotions often fall under the broader category of depression. For example, a young girl might feel anxious about her grieving father and guilty that she wasn't there for her mother in her final moments. These two emotions can blend into a heavy sense of depression.

It's essential to remember that children's minds are often filled with practical worries during this time. They may wonder about mundane concerns such as who will take them to school, provide pocket money, help with homework, and take on the responsibilities their deceased parent once managed. In this state, they may also be concerned about the prospect of having to stay at home to look after a younger sibling if a parent has passed away.

Delivering the news of a loved one's death to a child is likely one of the most challenging tasks any adult can face. Naturally, the person closest to the child is the surviving parent, but sometimes, an older brother or sister might be the best person to communicate the news, especially if the parent is too shocked to speak coherently. In situations where the child is not in immediate proximity, the news should be delivered by the most familiar and trusted adult they know.

Regardless of the circumstance, physical touch is crucial, providing comfort during these trying times.

Tears may or may not follow; shock is an overwhelming emotion that can momentarily stifle crying. Children can respond in various ways, from silent shock to screaming, weeping, or expressing disbelief. It's essential to listen to the child and provide as much reassurance as possible.

Children often blame themselves for a family member's death, and repeated assurances that they are not at fault are necessary.

Many children also fear their own mortality and may ask questions like "Is cancer contagious?" or "Will I die when I'm 15 as well?" Such concerns are very real and should never be dismissed with anger or laughter. It's common for children to be overwhelmed by anger upon hearing this devastating news, and they may vent their anger on the person delivering it. Family therapists advise against arguing with the child during this time. It's crucial not to ask your child to postpone or hide their feelings, as grief that is postponed can resurface months or years later to haunt the child. Some older children might prefer to be alone during this difficult period.

Children often have a longing to escape and engage in activities like running through fields, or to the park. Sometimes, teenagers might walk around the town until they're physically exhausted. It's important not to criticise or argue with them because their behaviour is entirely natural and can be incredibly therapeutic.

Counsellors often advise encouraging children to talk about their worries, although it's not always an easy task. Even if you have a good relationship with the child, they may not directly ask questions or express what's on their mind. You may wish you could help them voice what's troubling them. It's essential to remember that no one, not even a psychiatrist, can read people's minds. However, when a child has been referred to bereavement counselling, it's safe to assume that what's on their mind likely involves something they wish they had said to their parent. Asking the child about this can help them feel understood and encourage them to open up.

I know it might seem obvious, but only recently have adults recognised the importance of acknowledging children's pain and fear in an uncertain world. Children need a chance to express their feelings about death and the person they've lost. I emphasise that a profound sense of grief doesn't have to destroy a family; it can, in fact, bring it closer together. On a practical level, it's essential to maintain the family's routines as unchanged as possible. If they received pocket money, continue giving it. If the parent typically made sandwiches for school, involve the children in making them. If there were dance classes or football practice on Saturday mornings, ensure the youngsters have time for these activities. Bereavement is sometimes thought to be over after the funeral, but the absence of the deceased is often most acutely felt in the initial days of grieving.

It's crucial for children to understand that there are no right or wrong feelings. What they feel is important, and they should be free to express their emotions. As time goes by, children may exhibit physical symptoms like sore throats, aching limbs, nail-biting, bedwetting, stammering, lethargy, overtiredness, and sleep disturbances. While none of these symptoms should cause immediate alarm, they should be monitored. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions for each issue, but understanding that these problems stem from deep sorrow and the need for love and attention can help guide practical responses.

Many parents struggle with the idea of seeking professional help, be it from an educational psychologist or any form of psychiatric treatment. There's an odd stigma attached to this, even when it comes to child guidance clinics. Referring a child to such services may be seen as an admission of not being able to handle one's own children or even a suggestion of abnormalities within the family. There's a concern about what the neighbours might say, leading to a reluctance to seek help. On the other hand, some parents may rush to refer their child at the first signs of unusual behaviour when, in reality, it's the parents who may need assistance.

Just like with physical illnesses, early indicators of an inability to cope with bereavement are better diagnosed and treated right away rather than allowing them to fester until they manifest in more significant ways in adulthood. Here are some signs to watch out for:

1. Continued uncontrolled behaviour.

2. Intense vulnerability, particularly during small separations.

3. A complete absence of any display of emotions.

Adolescents often take life more seriously than they are given credit for, and if their feelings are not recognised they can manifest into concerning behaviours.

It's crucial to pay attention to grief that is delayed or prolonged.

If you have a child who seems stuck in their grieving process, the wisest course of action is to consult your family doctor. If you have joined bereavement counselling organisations, you might connect with other families who can recommend specialists they've found beneficial. This can be an ideal way to find the right therapist for your child, as personality clashes can occur, and it's crucial that the child feels comfortable with the chosen professional.

It's important to recognise that children of any age might be hesitant to attend their first appointment, and great care must be taken to reassure them that they are not ill or different. Many children, however, may quietly appreciate that someone has noticed their difficulty in coping with the complex emotions they are experiencing, even if they don't openly admit it or appear grateful.

Some psychiatrists suggest that when one parent passes away, the attitude and behaviour of the surviving parent can significantly influence that of the children. However, this places a tremendous burden on the grieving mother or father. If you wish to help children, begin by assisting their widowed parent. Families with a surviving single parent often manage in various ways. Many find strength in their shared loss, supporting each other through the difficult times. Some families thrive in this challenging situation, while others simply manage, and most navigate somewhere in between. It's important to recognise that children in the same family may react differently to the loss, so what works for one surviving parent might not be suitable for another.

The surviving partner, whether it's a mother or father, will often be in deep shock and may display various emotions, from hysterical outbursts to a numb realisation of their new role. Mothers have often adapted to more versatile parental roles in modern times, but fathers are now also taking on a more active role in parenting. Nonetheless, when a mother loses her husband, she experiences a profound loss and is left with full responsibility for her children. The shock can initially result in a desire to protect the children above all else. Fathers who suddenly find themselves in a solo parenting role also go through similar emotions, losing their beloved partner and the person they planned their children's future with.

Children may experience a whirlwind of emotions if their parents were already separated before one of them passed away. For instance, if they're living with their mother, they may tend to blame her for their father's death. When their mother is upset, they might question why she ever got divorced. On the other hand, if she doesn't seem to cry, they could accuse her of being unfeeling.

Naturally, the age of the children when a parent remarries is significant. Certain events or anniversaries may evoke strong emotions, and if such occasions coincide with the arrival of a step parent, the children's feelings can be particularly intense.

Few deaths are as heart-wrenching as that of a child, whether it's a baby in their parents' arms, a toddler just beginning to explore life, a school-age child, or a teenager on the verge of adulthood. For parents, the loss of a child is the most agonising and unbearable of all losses. Naturally, they receive an outpouring of sympathy and deep concern from all directions. But what about the surviving child or children?

Losing a parent can be a tremendous disaster for a small child, but losing a sibling makes a child acutely aware of their own mortality. Sometimes, a younger child who approaches the age at which an older sibling died can become very anxious. An otherwise loving mother with three sons became distant after the youngest boy choked to death on a swallowed button. She fell silent and never spoke of the deceased child, taking less care of the other children, even failing to notice if they wandered around the neighbourhood. She neglected to secure the gate leading to the road. As they grew up, the children believed their mother wouldn't care if they met the same fate. When there's only one child left, the weight of memories can be exceptionally harsh.

Funerals are occasions that families dread, yet they are a significant hurdle that must be overcome following a sudden death. The shock can make it nearly impossible for the family to arrange the funeral themselves. A team of carers who have known the child during their illness can continue to guide the family through the period after the death, offering comfort and assistance in preparing for the funeral service. If the siblings are old enough, they can help with tasks like arranging flowers and choosing the music. This experience can be quite different from past funerals, providing a chance for children to say goodbye in their way. However, the traditional gathering at home after the funeral can be a challenging time. The children may long for the talkative relatives and unfamiliar adults to leave, and they will realise that their deceased sibling is not there to help them, which can be an unbearably painful realisation.

Memories and anniversaries cannot be avoided. Children remember their brother's birthday, their sister's funeral date, and the empty place that continues to be noticed at the Christmas table.

Children are very resilient, but they need encouragement.

In families where parents' grief takes different paths, it can be challenging. The family may be torn apart rather than brought together by sorrow, especially if the parents are unable to support each other during this crisis. In more tragic cases, parents may have separated before the death of a child, which can add further distress. In such situations, both parents, even if physically separated, should come together to support the child and attend the funeral. Unfortunately, this might lead to accusations and disputes, such as blaming each other for letting the child travel alone or demanding custody of the surviving children as consolation. Sometimes, these emotional battles and conflicts even involve step-parents, leaving the children to cry out in anguish, questioning whether their family needs to fight on top of the tragedy they've already faced.

Individuals who have personally experienced a similar type of bereavement can offer unique help that no one else can provide.

Here are some suggestions for supporting someone who is grieving:

Be vigilant for changes in their behaviour, like withdrawal, aggressiveness, anger, nervousness, mood swings, or difficulty concentrating, especially during the initial weeks. Be patient, don't show surprise or annoyance, and never scold them.

When a child wants to talk, find a quiet time to listen. Let the child know that you are available and willing to listen. When the time comes to listen, be fully present – use not just your ears but also your eyes and your heart. Physical contact, like cuddling or holding hands, can be reassuring for someone who has lost a warm, loving parent. It lets the child know that you care and will be there for them when they need help. Encourage them to speak about the deceased parent and do the same yourself.

Try to involve the child's close friends. If you can gather the child's best friends, it shows them that when someone you love passes away, it's a good practice to keep all the happy memories alive by talking about them.

Be prepared for their questions and always be honest. A child often becomes extremely curious about death and burial. Don't be afraid to say "I don't know" when you genuinely don't. Understanding the family's cultural background and religious views is essential, but your own feelings should never conflict with those of the parents or confuse the young child.

If tears flow from your eyes, that's alright. If other children join in, allow them. You can reminisce about happy memories. Balance this with light-hearted stories. Demonstrate that it's okay to smile and laugh sometimes.

To facilitate such discussions, a list of relevant books, both fiction and non-fiction, can be provided when a child in school experiences a significant loss. The headteacher plays a crucial role in creating an environment where teachers are available for those in need of support. This may involve organising discussions or providing information on the resources available to help families cope.

Practical ways to support the concentration of bereaved teenagers include being patient when they appear to lose focus or forget things. They may need repetition and encouragement to refocus on their studies. Additionally, grieving teenagers might struggle with academic performance and may need to repeat a term or more of study, particularly when exams are approaching. Encouragement and understanding should be prioritized over pushing them too hard.

In cases where a family member's death brings relief rather than sorrow, it is important to recognise the disruption, despair, and sorrow that often follow the death of a family member in a previously happy home. Some children might have mixed emotions.

Want further information contact me for counselling support: 07802418588

These organisations offer various forms of support including counselling, helplines, support groups, and resources tailored to the needs of bereaved parents and children in the UK:

Agencies and Services for Bereaved Parents and Children in the UK

Child Bereavement UK

  • Website: Child Bereavement UK

  • Description: Provides support and information for families and professionals when a child dies or when a child is bereaved. Winston's Wish

  • Website: Winston's Wish

  • Description: Supports bereaved children, young people, and their families through a wide range of services, including practical support and guidance. Cruse Bereavement Care

  • Website: Cruse Bereavement Care

  • Description: Offers support, advice, and information to children, young people, and adults when someone close to them dies. The Compassionate Friends

  • Website: The Compassionate Friends

  • Description: Provides support for bereaved parents, siblings, and grandparents after the death of a child of any age and from any cause. Grief Encounter

  • Website: Grief Encounter

  • Description: Offers support and resources for bereaved children, young people, and their families through counselling, group activities, and educational programs. Sands (Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity)

  • Website: Sands

  • Description: Supports anyone affected by the death of a baby, providing bereavement support and promoting research to reduce the number of baby deaths. The Lullaby Trust

  • Website: The Lullaby Trust

  • Description: Provides specialist support for bereaved families and promotes expert advice on safer baby sleep to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). SOBS (Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide) Website: SOBS

  • Description: Offers support groups and resources for those bereaved by suicide, including parents and children affected by the loss.

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