Bereaved pupils 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

> Managing bereavement: A guide for primary schools

This guide is free to download and offers schools and educational settings guidance, support and information when a death occurs in the school community, when a school is facing an expected death or when a pupil is facing bereavement.

Contact with home

Having good contact with the family will enable you to access accurate information, to understand what the pupil 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.

Children need information

Adults naturally want to protect, but children have a much greater capacity to deal with the harsh realities of life than we realise, as long as they are told in an appropriate way. Even a very sad truth will be better 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.

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 children who take what they hear very much at face value.

> Children's understanding of death at different ages

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.

By about the age of 7, the majority of children realise that death is permanent.  As they get older, children become aware of the inevitability of death and develop an increasing awareness of their own mortality. 

> How children grieve

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. 

It can be difficult for a bereaved pupil as they may feel different to their peers and may struggle to connect with their friends.  Equally, young friends may find it difficult to interact with someone who is bereaved.  Nurture these relationships by asking a bereaved pupil what they need and want from their friends and then support these young people as they develop their friendships.

Some bereaved pupils feel very isolated and they can benefit from opportunities to meet other bereaved young people.

> Explaining funerals, burials and cremation to children

Most children will only know what a funeral is if they have previously experienced the death of someone they know.  You may be asked by a family for advice about taking their child to a to funeral 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, 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.”

It may be appropriate to send a card, this could be from the class if the child is not attending school for a few days. This will help them to keep up the contact with the school.

Be aware that they may not fully understand what being dead means, and it is important to address any insecurities and to reassure them.

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 models 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 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 children make sense of the world around them. Painting, drawing or craft activities can give a bereaved pupil the opportunity to focus on something practical which may help them to talk about their feelings.

Be prepared to repeat explanations and information

What they understood as a younger child will be different from their present understanding and at various other stages in their development. The meaning and the impact of what has happened will change and deepen. Questions may be repeated in response to their need for more detailed explanations in line with their understanding.

Give reassurance

When someone close to them dies, the world can become a very scary place for a child, and they may start to wonder who else is going to leave them. Children may feel reluctant to be away from their family members or people who are important to them, particularly on school trips or overnight stays.  Routines become important to them and they may react to changes within the school environment. Try to prepare them in advance, where possible, and address any anxieties they may have.