Living with loss… supporting bereaved children

Sally, a counsellor in our bereavement team, blogs on understanding how children grieve and ways to support them.

“Children sometimes don’t have the understanding or words to describe their feelings or show their feelings in lots of different ways. If they are feeling upset and can’t talk about something they might show this by acting younger than they are, not sleeping or in physical symptoms such as tummy aches. They can become clingy and perhaps worry that you will also die. They might not be able to say this.

Obvious behaviours like being rude, getting into fights, having outbursts or temper tantrums are all natural responses in bereavement, but so is being very good, very ‘grown up’ and very quiet. Just because behaviour is not loud doesn’t mean a child is not feeling deeply. When you are also grieving it can be difficult to see things through a child’s eyes.

Children perceive the world more literally than adults and depend on adults for much of their information about a family death. Many adults try, understandably, to protect children from death and the pain of loss by not discussing the death and hiding their feelings. As a result many children facing a significant loss feel bewildered, abandoned and isolated. It is normal for children and young people to re-visit and re-experience their grief as they develop and grow into adulthood.

How can I help bereaved children?

Be honest, simple and direct. Explain carefully what has happened. Use words you know they’ll understand. Avoid going into long explanations, which can confuse children. Don’t be afraid to use words like death, as saying that somebody has ‘gone to sleep’ can create sleep problems in the future.

Encourage your child to express their feelings openly. Listen to what your child is trying to tell you verbally or through their behaviour and respond according to your child’s needs. Children often express their grief through play.

Try to avoid telling your child how they should feel and accept the emotions and reactions the child expresses.

Sharing your feelings, both sad and happy, with your child allows them to share and comfort you too. This helps them feel included and gives them permission to talk about their difficult feelings.

Don’t forget to hug, cuddle and be affectionate towards your child. Children experience things literally so lack of contact can feel like real abandonment. However, some children may prefer to distance themselves for a while.

Remember to talk about the person who has died. Children may not take the lead and often take their cues from adults. They may need help keeping memories of the person. Simple collections of personal things, photo albums and an item of clothing to cuddle can be very reassuring. It may be helpful for them to start making a memory box as the whole family prepares for the funeral.

Further Information

During a lengthy illness, following the funeral, or sometimes long after the death of a loved one grief may become more than you are able or willing to handle. There are services and support which can help you through this time.

Anyone whose loved one was cared for by the Martlets is very welcome to make contact with our Bereavement Service by calling 01273 273400 or emailing

Useful Services and information:

Cruse Bereavement Service

Cruse offer a bereavement helpline to give support as you need it in addition to their website where you can also find resources on how to support your child.

0808 808 1677

Winston’s Wish 

Winston’s Wish has a wealth of resources and advice on how to support your child through bereavement, whilst also dealing with your own grief. They also have a free phone helpline you can call.

08088 020 021

Childhood Bereavement UK

Child Bereavement UK supports families and educates professionals when a baby or child of any age dies or is dying, or when a child is facing bereavement.

0800 02 888 40