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How to support a grieving child

By Erika, Family Counsellor

At Chestnut Tree House, we are here for the whole family, for the whole of their journey. That includes supporting the family when their child approaches the end of life and sadly dies.

Children experiencing the death of a close family member may be confronting the concept of death for the first time. Each child is unique and different, so inevitably the way they process grief will vary, just as it does with adults. There are many factors to consider: their age, their developmental age, their relationship to the person who has died and the circumstances of the death.

How they experience grief will depend on those things, but also their character or personality, their understanding of grief and to what extent the adults close to them are able to support them.

No right way to grieve

Chestnut Tree House is a unique setting where we provide holistic support to everybody involved in the grieving process. We support each family, which in some cases involves therapy or counselling for the child in collaboration with their parents. Sometimes parents ask for specific advice about how to talk to their child about death and dying. They might ask if there is a right or wrong way for their child to grieve, or whether they should seek further professional help.

We want to reassure parents that every person’s grief is individual and unique. There is no right or wrong way of reacting to a sad event. But we also try to encourage parents to be open and honest with their child. Sometimes we shy away from a difficult subject by using euphemisms but it’s always better to give clear and honest answer, even if you worry that it sounds blunt or harsh. It’s important to use correct and appropriate terminology for death and illness. Children take everything literally, so saying you’ve ‘lost’ someone or they’ve ‘gone to sleep’ is confusing and can add to their distress. It’s much clearer to use the word ‘dying’ and explain the illness itself in simple, age-appropriate terms.

It’s important to reassure the child that it’s okay to ask questions and it’s okay to feel sad. If parents notice that their child is angry, that’s fine – it’s a normal reaction. But it’s not okay to hurt themselves or hurt other people, so it may be worth providing an outlet for them to express their anger.

Working together

From my experience, most grieving children don’t need professional help. The support of their family is usually sufficient. But if parents feel that they need a little more support, we can provide that at the hospice where we have wonderful resources and therapy rooms. We are also happy to go into the child’s school and liaise with pastoral staff to ensure we are working together to meet that child’s needs. It might feel more familiar and safe for the child to meet us at school. Once those sessions are complete, we liaise with the school about providing appropriate support, especially around anniversaries and significant days relating to the person that has died.

How we approach our sessions depends on the child or young person’s developmental age and whether they can benefit from talking therapy or creative activities, such as drawing, painting or crafts. At every age, it is a good idea to provide opportunities to create memories – putting together memory boxes, writing stories, making posters, drawing and painting – anything to do with a memory of their loved one.

Following the death of a sibling, it is not unusual for a child to become clingy and anxious about being separated from their main caregivers. Schools can be a real support in acknowledging the enormity of loss with the child and finding ways through sensitive pastoral support, such as checking in points during the day. Alternatively, it is not unusual for children and young people to become more withdrawn, to seem not to be affected by their loss. Children and young people need to process things at their own pace. As adults, we just need to be available for them when they do want to come into contact.

Providing a safe space

When a child is receiving end-of-life treatment, that is a very difficult time for everybody. It can be extremely traumatic for the parents, and the focus of the family is all on the child who is unwell. We can provide siblings with extra sessions of play therapy to give them an outlet. Sometimes children or young people feel worried about sharing their feelings with their parents. They try to shield or protect their parents from their own worries and anxieties. As counsellors, we can provide them with a space to explore those feelings safely.

It can be helpful to parents to have some help when it comes to preparing siblings for what comes next. We want to ensure they have an understanding so nothing is left to their imagination, which might cause more fear and anxiety.

For all of us – adults and children alike – it’s very difficult to learn new skills and acquire knowledge at times of great stress and trauma. That’s why we emphasise the importance of preparing children for bereavement. The most important thing is that parents are open and honest with their grieving child, including about their own emotions. They don’t need to be heroes; they are being a good role model to their children just by showing that it’s okay to feel sad.

Find out more about bereavement support at Chestnut Tree House

Being there for the whole family throughout your journey is a vital part of what we do, and our team are specialists in coordinating end-of-life care for babies, children, and young people – whether at home, in hospital or at the hospice.

Facing bereavement

Books to help children understand loss

Reading books together and discussing them afterwards can be a great way to help children explore bereavement and the emotions that surround it. Here are some recommendations:

Please note – External links are not endorsements by (or connected to) Chestnut Tree House.