How might children react?
Children often show feelings with behaviours rather than words. They pick up on tension, distress and anxiety from adults, and may mirror this in their own behaviour. Children under 6 do not understand that death is permanent. They cannot handle strong emotions for long periods, and may jump in and out of grief (‘puddle jumping’). They may regress and behave like a younger child, being quiet and tearful, or having angry outbursts.
Adolescents may want to forget or deny the death. They may feel ‘what’s the point?’ with school or friends.
What might help?
- Be available. Provide extra time and space for activities or just be beside them to listen. Take your cue from the child. Maintain routines as much as possible. This enables children to feel safe and that not everything has changed.
- Be truthful. Children need clear and honest information. Use correct language such as ‘died’ and ‘funeral’. In our desire to protect them we can confuse them.
- Help them to create a ‘first aid kit’ of go-to activities that can help them to feel a little more relaxed, e.g. blowing bubbles, going for a run or listening to music.
- Support children to understand and ‘own’ their feelings. They need to know that, however they are feeling, it’s okay.
- Older young people may share feelings with peers. It’s still important for them to have adults around that they trust.
They may not have been able to say goodbye. Creating memory boxes, making worry dolls, salt jars or writing letters to loved ones can help.
- Remember that you can make a difference.
Short term advice for schools
- Look after yourself. Work in a team and let someone else step in when you are struggling. Remember that ‘you have to put your own oxygen mask on first’ before you can help others.
- Acknowledge for the children how strange and difficult the situation is. Don’t try to ”normalise” it.
- Be open.
- Keep a close connection with families.
- Provide support and a listening ear.
Longer term advice for schools
- Set aside a quiet room with support on hand. The room should be available for children and staff as needed. Consider compiling condolences for bereaved children from their peers, collecting messages to send, or compiling an electronic book of condolence to email to the family.
- Make sure that you have a bereavement policy or charter in place. This helps staff to be prepared and ready to support when the need arises.
- When schools reopen, expect the adjustment period to take a long time. In the same way that it will take pupils a long time to adjust to being back at school, the changes we have all been through will take a long time to process.
Further help, support and useful links:
- Emotional logic – one minute guide
- Emotional Logic Centre UK
- Winston’s Wish
- Child Bereavement UK
- The Guardian article
- Balloons Exeter 01392 826065
- Families in Grief (FIG) North Devon 01237 479027
- Children and Families in Grief (CFG) South Devon 01803 393917