One of the most frequent questions asked by adults caring for grieving children and young people is 'How can I help and what can I do?'. It’s important to recognise that grieving is a completely normal response to death. With sensitive support and care from family, friends and school, most children will not need professional help.

Every child is unique and will cope with the death of someone important in their own way. There is no magic formula, but here is some guidance based on what bereaved families have told us helps.

Why is it important to be honest with a grieving child?

It is natural for an adult to want to protect a child from conversations and information which may seem upsetting. But children are generally much more able to deal with difficult truths than we may think, as long as they are told in an age-appropriate way, in language they can understand. Even a very sad truth can be more helpful to them than uncertainty and confusion. What a child does not know they tend to make up and their fantasies can be very distressing to them and difficult to deal with.

Children and young people need information given in words appropriate for their age and understanding. Without information, they cannot start to make sense of what has happened. Children pick up on atmosphere and will be aware that there is something that everyone else knows about but not them. This can create feelings of exclusion and isolation from the rest of the family.

One bereaved child told us: 'It helps to know why everyone in the family is sad and worried because when you don’t know what is happening you can’t help thinking it’s your fault.'

Phrases such as 'gone to sleep', 'gone to the stars' or 'passed away' or words such as 'lost' may feel kinder, but are misleading and can lead to confusion and complication - we encourage children to find things that they have lost so they may continue to look for the person who has died. Similarly, using the term ‘gone to sleep’ may lead them to associate going to sleep with dying which can result in anxieties at bedtime.

Saying the person 'went away' may cause the child to feel abandoned or think they did something wrong and is no longer loved.

If communication is open and honest, children can trust in the adults around them and are more likely to express their feelings more freely, talk about any fears, and be able to receive reassurance and comfort. View our resource for more on explaining to a child that someone has died.

How can I answer any questions my grieving child may have?

It is helpful to reassure a child that it’s OK to ask questions and to talk about what has happened. Answer any questions honestly and in simple language suitable for the child’s age and understanding. This may seem harsh, but bereaved children tell us that they need adults to speak to them in a way that is clear and unambiguous.

Young children may need repeated explanations and answers. This can be very wearing and hard to deal with, but it is a child’s way of fitting together all the pieces of the jigsaw. Questions from a child are sometimes not about more information, but more a way to check that what has happened is true and not just a bad dream.

If faced with a question you find difficult or are not sure how to answer, it can be helpful to ask your child what they think. This will give you an indication of what is behind their question and how much they already know and understand.

Why can it be helpful to keep to daily routines when someone has died?

Children can feel out of control and scared when someone close to them dies. Daily routines and structures help them to feel more secure. Try and change these as little as possible if you can and if you do need to change anything let them know in advance, explaining who will be looking after them, where you will be and when you’ll be returning.

In the early days after a death, children of any age need extra care and concern from the adults around them. If the death was sudden, there may have been no opportunity to say goodbye and children can sometimes feel angry with their parent or sibling who has died and left them. They may have regrets about something they said or wish they had said. They need to know from parents and carers that they are still loved, that they will continue to be looked after and that they will be involved in any decisions that affect them. View our resource for more on how children grieve.

How can I help my child talk about their feelings?

Children can feel overwhelmed by strong emotions and may not feel able to express them. It’s important to give them an opportunity to talk about their feelings and to show that you want to listen.

Talking is only one way of expressing feelings. Doing a workbook together, making a memory jar or just going for a walk can help to alleviate the pressure and give your child space to express their thoughts and feelings. Have a look at our activities for grieving children and young people for ideas on things you can do together to help your child talk about their feelings and learn how to cope with difficult emotions.

My grieving child is misbehaving. What should I do?

Children can feel out of control and scared when someone important to them dies and they may respond with challenging behaviour. Usual daily structures and routines will feel comforting for a child of any age, but especially young children. Try to change these as little as possible, although this may feel difficult when you are exhausted emotionally and physically. Try to continue with normal expectations of behaviour but it 'normality with compassion' is a good thing to aim for. Anger can often form a large part of the grieving process and children of all ages will express it in various ways. You may find it helpful to watch our short animated films with your child on managing emotions: Volcano and The Invisible Suitcase.

Younger children can seem to move in and out of their grief, a bit like they’re jumping in and out of a puddle. This is normal and is a child’s way of coping with their grief. To find out more about puddle jumping, watch our short animated film.

For how long will my child grieve?

Grief is not something you 'get over' but people can learn to manage their grief. How a child grieves How a child grieves will be affected by a variety of factors including their relationship with person, how they died and your child’s age and understanding. With support from adults around them, they will learn to adjust to life as it has become, rather than how it used to be, even though their loss will always be with them.  

I didn't feel anything for the first 3 months. For the next 6 to 8 months I couldn't really handle myself or my feelings. Then after that, it took me a long time and a lot of tears but I managed to calm down. Ever since then it's like a long road up a hill.

Older children and teenagers may need to revisit the details surrounding the death of an important person in their lives as they grow older. Feelings they had when they were young will be different several years later as their understanding matures and they move through life. This does not mean that they are not coping or their grief is unresolved, but it is not uncommon for feelings to surface, often connected to major life events such as moving up to senior school, further education or other changes.

Will my child need any time off school and if so, how much?

For a grieving child, the familiar routine of school can feel safe and secure and is a helpful reminder for a child that not everything has changed. If their return to school is managed with sensitivity, it can provide a welcome sense of normality at a time of great uncertainty. Most of the children that we support at Child Bereavement UK want to return to school after one, or at the most a few days. Some children might need a few days more at home, but the longer they are away, the harder it can be to return. Returning to school after the death of someone important needs to be handled sensitively and it can help to talk to your child about how they would like this to be managed and to liaise with their school so that they know what has happened and can be supportive. You may find it helpful to let your child’s school know about our resources for schools.

Is it okay for my child to see me upset?

Your child needs you to be a model, not a hero. Share your feelings with your child; children learn to grieve from the adults around them. If parents are open and expressive, their child is likely to be so too. On the other hand, they will learn to close down and bottle up emotions if adults are distant and always attempting to keep their feelings under control.

You also have your own grief to deal with, which at times will understandably be overwhelming. It is important to look after yourself both physically and emotionally. It is not a sign of weakness or not being able to cope if you seek help from others. Don’t expect too much of yourself - managing life and your own grief, at the same time as trying to support a child or young person, is exhausting.

If you can, ask friends and other family members for support, perhaps by looking after your child for a few hours. This will give you space to express any raw grief without having to maintain some control for the children, helping you feel stronger for times when they are around.

Can it be helpful for a child to speak to someone who isn’t emotionally involved?

While most children get the support they need from their family, in some cases it may help to speak to someone outside the family, particularly if emotions are heightened at home. This could be a family friend, or other adult, who is prepared to give some time and listen. Children can be protective of adults they care about and may choose to talk to someone else in order to avoid causing further upset. The teenagers we support at Child Bereavement UK often tell us they find sharing their experiences with other bereaved people their own age to be very helpful.

Teachers can play an important role, particularly in a primary school, as they see a child on a daily basis and can keep a look out for signs of distress or changes in behaviour. Try to keep in contact with your child’s school and ask them to ensure, without going into detail if you don’t want to, that all staff are aware of what has happened. You may find it helpful to share our resources for schools with your child’s teacher.  

Family pets, if you have any, may take on a new significance. One young boy told us that his dog was a source of comfort because it felt warm and soft to cuddle. It let him talk as much as he wanted to without interruption, didn’t judge him, and gave him unconditional love and affection.

Can it help a child to see a bereavement support practitioner?

The bereaved children we support at Child Bereavement UK tell us what they need initially is to be with adults who they know and trust. However, in time, needs will change, and some children find speaking to a bereavement support practitioner helpful, or in circumstances where the death was traumatic or their grief is starting to negatively impact other aspects of their life in the longer term.

Visit our page: How we can support you for more on our services.

You can also call our Helpline 0800 02 888 40, email [email protected], or use Live Chat on our website.