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In this blog post, Cruse Scotland volunteer, Audrey Holligan, describes how children and young people may experience grief, and how adults around them can help them cope.
November 20, 2020
Helping a child or young person through grief can be difficult and daunting. What do I say? How should I act? So many questions come to mind. Adults want to help and reassure, often not realising that children and young people grieve just as deeply as they do, and learn how to grieve from them.
How children and young people show their grief can depend on so many factors: how old the child or young person is, the relationship with the deceased, how the person died… there are lots of variables. Every child and young person's grief and reactions are unique, coping with the death in their own way. They will show behaviours that can sometimes be very worrying - perhaps humour, behavioural issues at school, regression, asking questions about the death, problems with sleep or eating, anxiety, anger, risk taking, denial, feeling responsible, being withdrawn and having nightmares can be very common.
Children will often go in and out of the grief - what we call ‘puddle jumping’. One minute you can be in a supermarket looking at tins of food and from nowhere, “I remember when Daddy died, and I saw his body” from the child beside you. Just as quickly, they can change the conversation to “I’m wearing odd socks”. They jump into the ‘puddle’ of grief but can only stay there for so long before they jump out again. They can quickly go from very deep feeling of sadness to happily playing. It can also appear that the child lacks any feelings for the deceased. This is a safety mechanism, so they don’t become overwhelmed by their feelings. This is the time to listen, to attend and hear the story. It can take you by surprise and sometimes there are no words, but being there and listening is all that can be needed at that moment.
Unlike adults, children and young people may experience the bereavement many times over as they go through ages and stages. They will revisit the understanding of what death is as they develop and may grieve in a new way. You may have heard people say, “Their Dad died when they were five, I don’t understand why they are talking about it again and getting so upset now they are ten”. This is because they are processing with a different understanding of death and loss than when they were five. It is important to attend to this ‘new’ but not unresolved grief just the same way as if it was the first time.
How the person has died will have a huge impact on a child and young person. It could be sudden, expected, traumatic, deliberate. Shock, numbness, abandonment are all normal feelings which can bring anger and frustration at the person who has died. There could be guilt and regret if there had been an argument before the death, also feelings of frustration that the person has now gone and can no longer be involved in activities such as birthdays, holidays, school. You may hear, “I never told Dad how much I loved him coming to my swimming and now he’s not here. I wish I could tell him.” When a death is expected, the shock can still be as huge. That's why it so important to keep them informed and be honest in your replies, appropriate to the age of the child or young person.
Be open and honest. Children and young people are much more aware of what's going around them than you might think. They can be very intuitive. Try not to use words like “They are sleeping” as this can be confusing; they may think the dead person is going to wake up. “They have gone away” can lead to feelings of abandonment or that the person may come back. As hard as it might be, try to always use the words dead, death and died.
Using words and language that are appropriate to their age is very important for them to make sense of the death. Being open helps them understand what has happened. This will help build trust and hopefully avoid confusion.
Be available. Be present; try not to avoid the child or young person. Providing a space where they won’t be judged and can talk openly, play and express feelings is very important. This is a time to interact and listen to the stories. Children often ‘open up’ when involved in an activity. Going for a walk, driving in the car, being in nature and taking the dog for a walk are also opportunities for discussion to flow freely.
Be patient. Every child, like every adult, grieves in their own time in different ways. Give them the time and space and to do this.
Try to keep some routine. School can feel a safe place when everything around them can feel like it’s falling apart. While everything and everyone around them has changed, school can feel like a little bit of ‘normality’; a place where adults around them aren’t grieving, a place to share with friends, talk to teachers. It can sometimes be easier for them to talk to someone who is not emotionally involved.
Show your feelings. Share your grief, show your feelings. Children learn from the adults around them. It can help ‘normalise’ the grief process and help them not to bottle up their emotions.
Importantly, remember to attend to your own grief while supporting a child or young person who is also grieving. We can’t do everything and sometimes need support from other family members, friends and professionals.
Audrey Holligan - Cruse Scotland Volunteer
Audrey has a background in counselling and education. She has volunteered for Cruse Scotland for five years as a Children and Young People's Supporter, Step-by-Step Manager, BBC Grief Consultant and many other ‘hats'.
She is currently studying MSc Play Therapy, following her huge passion for understanding and researching trauma and grief in children and how play helps with therapeutic healing. Her professional and academic path was motivated by her own experience of both her parents dying when she was very young and recognising the importance of grief support for children and young people.
Audrey says, "to be able to contribute through Cruse Scotland is an absolute privilege. I am often humbled by the strength and resilience within the children and young people I support."
For her self-care, she enjoys drawing, socialising (tea and cake being a favourite!), walking with her dog Daisy, spending time with her precious family - and, of course, playing!