Supporting bereaved pupils: advice for staff
'More than 100 children are bereaved of a parent every single day in the UK.'
Bereavement and loss are essential to the human experience. At some point in their childhood or adolescence, most children will experience the death of a family member or friend. Oftentimes they will manage this grief with the support of their family and friends.
The death of a parent or main carer remains the most traumatic and painful loss for a child. Following the loss of a parent, 19 per cent of children continue to experience significant psychological problems, such as trauma or a prolonged grief reaction, one year later, according to research by William Worden (1993).
Children do not have the emotional resources or cognitive capacity to stay with feelings of grief for a prolonged time (a common adult experience). The Child Bereavement Network likens this to ‘puddle jumping’, whereas in contrast adults ‘may wade through rivers of grief or become stuck in the middle of seas of distress’.
After losing a loved one, children may swing from crying one minute to playing the next. This can be distressing for their parents or carers, who may also be grieving, to observe. This fluctuation in mood does not mean the child isn’t sad or they have finished grieving. On the contrary, it can form an important defence mechanism against becoming overwhelmed by loss. It is also normal for children to feel depressed, guilty, anxious or angry with the person who has died, or another close person to them.
Some children will struggle to express their feelings through words, so exploring sensitive children’s books about death (such as Michael Rosen's Sad Book), drawing pictures and playing with puppets or figures are important alternative ways of expressing feelings.
The developmental perspective
A child’s stage of development partially determines their ability to grieve and understand the notion of death.
- Children below the age of seven struggle to realise that death is permanent, and may confuse it with sleep. They may believe that the person will come back, as the concept of ‘forever’ is difficult for them to understand.
- Younger children have difficulty distinguishing between thought and action. They may become convinced that the person died because they were angry with them, or did not love them enough. Regressive behaviour may occur, with periods of bedwetting, thumb-sucking and seeking greater comfort and soothing.
- Seven- to 11-year-old children begin to grasp the finality of death, but may have difficulty processing that it will or could happen to them.
- In early adolescence, young people begin to accept that they too will die.
- The significance of death is not fully realised until adulthood. Even as adults, we continue to struggle to accept our own mortality (Kalish & Reynolds, 1976).
Children and young people who have experienced significant loss or multiple bereavements may come to understand the inevitability of death far sooner than their peers.
The grieving process
Parents and carers will typically request psychological support when children react to grief and loss in ways that are not expected or perceived as usual. Explaining how the process of grief for children can be distinct is integral to helping adults make sense of the significant transition children and their families go through when a loved one dies.
- Shock. This is the most common initial reaction. It can manifest in physical pain, numbness, apathy or withdrawal.
- Denial. Unconscious avoidance of the reality of the bereavement – which could last minutes, days or even months. Children may behave as though the deceased person is still living and may talk about future plans with them.
- Yearning and searching. Children may frantically search for a lost loved one, on a quest to find them. They may attempt to phone them, report having seen them or mistake other people for them.
- Depression. The gradual realisation of the finality of the loss. Profound sadness and hopelessness. Low energy, disturbed sleep, change in appetite and difficulty concentrating. Possible retreat from friendships and previously loved activities.
- Anger. This is a profound and often underestimated part of the grief. Defiance, angry outbursts, challenging behaviour and school refusal. For some young people this may include attempts to manage unbearable feelings by alcohol and drug abuse.
- Anxiety. Angry outbursts may be followed by intense feelings of remorse and guilt, the fear of retribution. Young children may fear going to bed alone, becoming clingier. Older children and young people may fear dying of the same illness, or experiencing a similar accident.
- Guilt and bargaining. ‘Was I to blame?’ ‘Could I have done more?’ ‘If I died, would it help bring back my brother or sister?’ Severe feelings of guilt may trigger profound feelings of worthlessness and, for a small minority of children, suicidal thoughts. Access to a timely CAMHS assessment is crucial when school staff are concerned that a child or young person is struggling to keep themselves safe.
- Acceptance. The child accepts that the person is no longer living. Children will remember through looking regularly at photographs, gifts and belongings associated with that person. This process can be painful for grieving adults to observe and support, as it can activate their own grief.
In the development of The Resilience Framework, research from Boingboing has suggested that children reach acceptance sooner if they are well supported by families and the school community in the early stages of grief.
Below are two illustrations of how a school might respond to a bereaved pupil.
Kayley is six. Her father has recently passed away in a construction site accident. The family are in shock, especially Kayley’s mother, who also has a nine-month-old baby to look after. She knows Kayley is hurting, but finds the constant questions and denial unbearable.
At school, staff struggle to remember that Kayley is grieving. She is often angry, and mentions that she will see her father again soon. It’s hard to know how best to respond. Her behaviour has become openly challenging.
Providing staff with a more nuanced understanding of the grieving process, particularly the shock and abandonment that Kayley is feeling, helps them to respond more appropriately to the questions she has about loss. Additionally, giving Kayley the ability to use a time out card reduces the number of behavioural sanctions she receives.
The school’s family liaison worker works with Kayley’s mother on the practical issues, such as funeral planning and financial arrangements. In turn, this gives her more time to acknowledge Kayley’s distress.
Kayley no longer bottles up her negative feelings while at home, only to let them flood out at school. She is no longer at risk of exclusion, and has become increasingly tearful – a sign that she is beginning to process her father’s passing.
Alex is 14. He has just lost a dearly loved aunt to breast cancer. While foreseeable, her passing has come as a significant shock to Alex’s family.
On the surface Alex appears unaffected, determined to work hard but not performing well. He becomes increasingly worried about his own physical health, asking the school nurse for a health screening. He admits to staff that it has become harder to concentrate, and he struggles with staying awake during the day and getting to sleep at night.
Alex’s parents are frustrated. Their son seems just to mope around, having not really reacted at all to his aunt’s death. He appears to have lost interest in all of his hobbies, and it’s hard to take his health concerns seriously when his mother and her sisters are now preoccupied with their own cancer risk. Staff also find themselves forgetting that Alex has been bereaved.
After a consultation with the local CAMHS, school staff are concerned that Alex may be depressed. They arrange a meeting with Alex and his parents, in which Alex breaks down, admitting the guilt he has felt for not having been able to visit his aunt one last time before she died. He was terrified by how ill she had become. His parents admit that, in the struggle to manage their own distress, they had overlooked Alex’s own feelings.
Now encouraged to grieve more openly at home, Alex becomes more present at school, and less preoccupied with his health.
Children and young people are also significantly affected by the grief processes of those around them. Encouraging parents, carers and involved friends to seek help for their own distress is of profound importance in both supporting and protecting grieving children.
At times where the experience of loss is traumatic, such as the Grenfell Tower fire or Manchester Arena bombing, significant changes to a child’s understanding of the world can prolong the grieving process. We need to be aware that these children and young people may also be experiencing trauma (PTSD) and may require specific psychological treatment to process their grief.
What schools can do
School staff are more attuned to noticing angry, distraught pupils who rail against authority out of despair, but there may be equally distressed children who take great care to conceal their pain and experience a range of bodily symptoms, such as stomach pains or headaches. Experience shows that withdrawn pupils can be harder to identify during a busy school day.
Advice for all staff
- Reassure children that feeling sad is an important part of our feelings when someone dies. Sharing how we feel is important, helps look after ourselves and develop appropriate coping mechanisms.
- Be emotionally present and able to offer compassionate responses.
- Acknowledge the loss. Children will remember and greatly appreciate this. For example, ‘I heard your dad died last week. I’m so sorry, that must be feeling so hard.’
- Stay with routines and keep the child’s life as normal as possible. Being able to play and keep learning are all important aspects of building resilience.
- Children will have difficult questions about why and how people die. Do your best to answer them simply and honestly. If you can’t answer a question, say so. How might you find out together?
Advice for teachers and middle leaders
- Tell friends and the wider class, but be sensitive. They will find out anyway and it is important that this information is shared in a clear and helpful way.
- Use time out cards to allow children to share grief and gather themselves when situations at school become overwhelming.
Advice for senior leaders
- Consider attending the funeral or have a representative attend on behalf of your school. Funerals are instrumental to providing closure and the support of the school community.
- For the benefit of children who can’t attend the funeral, create a short-term place of remembrance in school (to leave flowers, pictures, messages, releasing balloons) and consider a longer-term memorial, such as a tree or a bench.
- Following the death of a parent, children may become very anxious about the welfare of their other relatives. Reassure children they will be loved and cared for, and that school is also supporting their family.
- Consider whole-school and year group assemblies to help process the death of a child or a staff member, or a significantly traumatic event in the local community. Remember that schools are often central to explaining why and how someone has died. If a child/young person continues to be unusually upset and unable to cope with their grief, (becoming depressed, unable to function/learn, angry, disruptive, potentially self-harming) then seek advice from your local CAMHS.
What to avoid
- Don’t volunteer too much information. You should respond to child-led questions.
- Don’t feel that you have to help a child stop crying – it is key that children feel adults can stay with their sadness.
- Children’s understanding is literal, so avoid statements like they have ‘passed on’. Be explicit with explanations, ‘they have died’. More distress is caused by this not being made clear for children. To develop healthy coping mechanisms, children need a clear understanding of what actually happened, however traumatic.
- Don’t ignore your own grief – seek timely support for yourself. Remember children will follow the grieving patterns of adults around them.
- Where possible, avoid becoming uncontrollably distressed when around children. If children are witness to adults struggling with their grief, it can be more difficult for them to process their own losses.
- Don’t avoid conversations with parents about how they are feeling. Remember, if a parent is struggling to cope, there is a risk that their children are supporting them, rather than processing their own feelings.
- Remember that unresolved grief is deeply distressing and potentially life changing for children and young people. Support access to specialist psychological help when needed.
Supporting bereaved children with SEND
- Make sure the child has a photo of the person who has died to keep in their bag, so they can get it out when they want to talk about the person, or need to look at it for reassurance if they are having a difficult time.
- Let them keep something that belonged to the person in their bag, such as an item of clothing or a piece of non-valuable jewellery, that they can take out when they want tactile comfort.
- Have a spray bottle or pot that contains a smell associated with the person – for example their perfume or aftershave, lavender oil (if they grew lavender in their garden), or wood shavings (if they were a carpenter). The child can smell this special scent when they want help to remember the person or need some extra support.
- Involve the child in activities that bring back happy memories. For example, if their mother has died and they used to love baking cakes together, joining you or a group of children to do some baking may make it easier for them to talk about their mother and how her death is impacting on them.
For more advice on childhood bereavement and SEND, read Sarah Helton's article in issue 244 of Special Children magazine.