Bereaved young children need the stability of a familiar routine with caring adults.

  • Every 22 minutes a parent of dependent children dies in the UK
  • Up to 70% of schools have a bereaved pupil on their roll at any given time
  • 92% of young people will experience a significant bereavement before the age of 16 years

Contact with home

Having good contact with the family will enable you to access accurate information, to understand what the child has been told and to reassure those caring for the child.

Remember to share the child’s successes as well as any concerns you may have.  Grieving children can display altered behaviours in different situations and good communication with home will provide a more realistic picture of how the child is coping. 

Even very young children need information

When someone dies, adults often, with the best of intentions, do not tell children the truth, assuming that under 5s are too young to be aware, or understand.

Do not be afraid to use the word “dead.”  It may feel harsh but euphemisms such as “lost” or “gone away” only create confusion and misunderstanding in young children who take what they hear very much at face value. The explanation may need to be repeated many times for this age group.

> Children's understanding of death

Children mature at different rates and their understanding and responses to bereavement are likely to be based as much on their experience of life as on their chronological age.

A child of 3 or 4 may use the word dead in context and will begin to differentiate between things which are dead and alive, but they will not understand abstract concepts like 'forever' and cannot grasp that death is permanent and irreversible. 

> What helps grieving children

Children, like adults, will grieve in different ways and their responses to a bereavement will depend on their age, understanding and relationship with the person who died. 

> Explaining funerals, burials and cremation to children

Very few young children know what a funeral is unless they have previously experienced the death of someone they know.  You may be asked by a family for advice about taking young children to funerals and some families are concerned that a funeral is too “adult” a ritual. 

When someone dies, most people gain some comfort from an opportunity to say goodbye at a funeral.  It is no different for children. As long as they have been prepared and given the choice whether to be there or not, they find it a helpful experience. 

You could reassure them that none of the children and young people that we support at Child Bereavement UK regretted choosing to attend the funeral of someone special to them. Those who were not given the option deeply resent not being included, despite this decision having been made with the best of intentions.

Acknowledge what has happened

The most helpful thing that you can do for grieving children, even when very young, is to acknowledge what has happened. Keep it very simple, “I was very sorry to hear that *** has died, that is a very sad thing to have happened.”

Don’t assume that they understand what has been said. Try to check out their understanding of what being dead means. Using some of the suggested storybooks or exploring the life cycle with examples from the natural world, may help a young child to start to grasp the reality of what being dead means.

Try to answer questions honestly

Keep the language simple and age appropriate. It is important to find out what has been said to the child at home as it will be confusing if explanations differ. Adults act as a role model so it is helpful if everyone can take the same approach. Children need an accepting and supportive environment where they feel safe to ask questions and share feelings. When they ask difficult questions which you are unable to answer, ask the child what they think or ask them what they have been told.

Adults as role models

If the adults around them can express their emotions, a young child will know it is OK to do the same. Encourage and help them to express feelings by giving opportunities through play and other activities. They may play at being dead and although adults might find this disturbing, it is how very young children make sense of the world around them. Messy painting or drawing can help a child who is too young to have acquired the vocabulary of loss and grief.

Be prepared to repeat explanations and information

What they understood as a two-year-old will be different from their understanding at age three and at various other stages in their development. The meaning and the impact of what has happened will change and deepen. Questions asked previously may be asked again and again, in response to their need for more detailed explanations.

Give reassurance

When someone close to them dies, the world can become a very scary place for a young child, and they may start to wonder who else is going to leave them. If you make a promise, stick to it and continue to reassure an anxious child.