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Understanding Bereavement For SEND Children and Young People

Any child who has been bereaved needs the opportunity for their grief to be recognised and to be allowed to express how they are feeling. They need understanding, love and support at times of loss and grief.

There is sometimes a feeling that children and young people with SEND, especially more complex needs, have to be protected as they are already dealing with so much. However, when we hear the voices of children and young people who have been bereaved, they tell us that they want and need to know what has happened, how it happened and be supported to understand and begin to come to and terms with it.

Parent/carers may find it challenging to know how to support their child/young person at times of bereavement, as do professionals working with them because

‘their needs appear so overwhelming that caring families and professionals can themselves feel disabled.’

        Judy Sanderson, Interventions with bereaved children, 1998

Some children and young people with very complex needs will actually be more familiar with death than many other people because of the specialist provision they have attended, and the people they have got to know there.

SEND of course, covers a wide range of special education needs and disabilities,  and some individuals will have difficulties in more than one of the 4 main areas:

  • Cognition and Learning Needs.
  • Communication and Interaction Needs.
  • Social, Emotional and Mental Health Needs.
  • Sensory and/ or Physical Needs

The level of needs will also vary from mild through to profound. The bereavement support will need to be tailored to the unique needs of the children and young people you work with.

For those children and young people who have learning disabilities one of the most important things to do is to keep the functioning age in mind rather than the chronological one. There will be some children and young people who have a spikey profile – they may be functioning more highly in some areas than in others.

Developing an understanding of death

Many children and young people with cognition and learning needs will need additional support in this area. The way you work with the individual young person in their learning in the setting, at school/college will be hugely supportive to them when they have been bereaved:

  1. Use clear, unambiguous language
  2. Give information gradually
  3. Use visual cards to explore what happened in a sequence
  4. Act out what has happened using toys/models/puppets
  5. Get the child/young person to tell you what they understand about what has happened.
  6. Go back on these activities frequently to reinforce understanding.
  7. Keep it concrete and real:                                                                                 1.Use flowers to demonstrate how things die and don’t come                  back to life                                                                                               2.Buy a dead fish and compare it to a live one                              could cremate the fish to demonstrate what a burial is                 4.make a book using photographs of the above activities
    From the Child Bereavement Trust
  8. At all stages, watch how the child/young person responds, and follow their lead.

It is important to work closely with the child or young person’s family as much as possible in this so that there is a coherent approach for them. Liaising with any other agencies working with the child or young person is also recommended.

Identifying and expressing emotions

Children and young people with learning needs may need a lot of support to recognize the emotions and feelings associated with bereavement. An emphasis on helping them to link what their body is feeling like to how they feel emotionally is really important.

Reassurance that the strong emotions and feelings are normal and necessary when someone dies will help children and young people. Support to know how to express the feelings safely will be needed:

‘…pupils with learning difficulties may lack the communication skills that allow them to express their feelings or ask questions in the same way that children without additional needs are able to'(Crane 2005).

‘Without communication structures you are more likely to behave the way you feel’ (Hewitt 1998).

         Loss-and-complex-needs-leaflet. Penhaligons Friends

Making lasting memories

‘SEND C&YP will often need additional help to place the memory in context and to have associated sensory memories validated not just cognitive ones. Smells, colours and sounds can all strengthen the memory trace and aid subsequent recall.’

        Impact of SEND on C&YP’s grief, Talk to Stars

Developing a multi-sensory memory box will help the child and young person.

Having a small selection of different colour/textured stones, which signify different types of memory: a good/happy one/ a memory of someone doing an everyday thing/a difficult memory can also help to do the above with appropriate support from a worker who can give simple explanations/prompt.

The child or young person may not want to revisit memories that are not good or that are unpleasant such as the physical changes to their loved one before they died.

Watching a film/recording of the person who has died may also help the child or young person express their emotions and feelings.

You may want to seek advice if you notice that the child or young person is not making progress in their understanding or their behaviour in response to the bereavement is causing concern.

For information regarding preparing for death and funerals, please see Supporting autistic children and young people who have been bereaved.


Blob cards by Pip Wilson and Ian Long (2008) to help children show emotions. Available from these are intended to run alongside the book

Social stories:


Link to useful worksheets:


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