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Understanding Bereavement for Younger Children

This article complements ‘Early Years children and grief’ in the Grief section and the CPD session ‘Supporting young children who have been bereaved.’

It aims to illustrate some of the ways in which staff can support young children who have experienced the death of someone close to them. It is recommended that you work closely in partnership with the child’s family/carers to do this.

This will be challenging as they will be grieving themselves. However, by asking them sensitively about how they have explained the death to their child, what involvement the child has had in the mourning process, you will gain a much better understanding of what the child is experiencing and what you can possibly talk about to help them further. For a child under 2 this will obviously be focused on asking about their responses to their parent or towards the age of 2, another key person such as their grandparent, not being there.

Under 2s

Your key person system is integral to supporting children in this situation; some aspects to consider adapting, based on your existing knowledge of the child, and the observations you make, may be:

  • The number of people who come into the room for the first few weeks after the child has been bereaved.
  • Rotas so that the main key person can be present even more than usual or be enabled to spend more time with the child
  • Feeding and drinking routines as the stress of not having their caregiver may impact on their ability to take in food and drink.

Over 2s

Your key person system continues to be absolutely crucial for a bereaved child over 2. Here are some suggestions as to how you can support a child as they develop their awareness and language:

  • Giving children individual time with the key person doing whatever they want is essential
  • Being there for children at these sad times means being honest and talking about the issues, simply and without detail. Children may ask you lots of the same questions about (the) death.
  • We have to use language that is unambiguous and clear, such as ‘death’, ‘dying’ ‘died.’ Talking about a loved one dying as ‘your grandad’s gone’ may confuse them. They may look for their granddad as a result.
  • You don’t need to initiate talk about the bereavement - a child may start talking about someone having died whilst they are playing and you are with them: ‘My granddad died.’
  • Responding to their statement by confirming that you heard them is crucial. Saying something like ‘Yes, I know. X. It’s really sad’ lets the child know you are listening to them and that it is a safe space for them to talk. They may then choose to talk about something completely different and move from being sad to laughing, which is completely normal for a child of their age.
  • You can introduce a book about dying (see suggestions below) and see if they would like to share it.
  • As a team, agree the types of responses you will give to children’s questions. This could accompany a bereavement policy for the setting/school.

It is normal to see some regressions in young children who have been bereaved such as their speech, language, toileting.

  • You may want to make more observations over this period so you have a clear record of how they have been affected and can see if they may need some further support at any point.
  • Be clear as a team as to how you are going to approach any behavioural changes such as hitting out, shouting.

Sometimes the reactions may be those of anger and distress. Children may think that they are somehow to blame for the death, use magical thinking

  • Reassure the child using simple factual language
  • Use soft toys/figures/puppets to tell a simple social story about death of a loved one, how the bereaved person feels it’s their fault but that the loved one was very ill and this is why they died.

Memory making

Young children can also be helped to remember their loved one:

  • Ask the parent/carer/family for a photo of the person that died and other photos of the child with that person and make a book with the child.
  • Make a memory box to put things that remind them of their loved one with as many sensory things as possible: a piece of material associated with that person, a photo, a cd with music on it, something that smells of the person.
  • Plan in advance for days when parents and family are invited in so that the child and their parent/carer/family have enough warning. Spend time with the children looking at the photo of their dead parent carer, remembering them and reassuring the child they can have fun, before other parents come.
  • Consider how you can adapt other activities and events such as mother’s day.

Useful links:

Helpful books:

  • Muddles, Puddles and Sunshine: Your Activity Book to Help When Someone Has Died) (2001) by Diana Crossley and Kate Sheppard (Hawthorn Press)
  • The invisible string (2000) by Patrice Karst and Geoff Stevenson (DeVorss and Co)  3+
  • Always and Forever (2003) by Alain Durant(Penguin Random House Children's UK)
  • The memory tree (2013) by Britta Teckentrup (Hachette Children’s Group)
  • Badger’s parting gifts (1984) by Susan Varley (Anderson Press)

Link to useful worksheets:


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