Supporting your child when their parent has died can be very challenging; trying to look after the needs of a bereaved child if you are also grieving yourself can be a very difficult thing to do.

It is understandable that your main concern will be the wellbeing of your child, and navigating being the only parent to your child and supporting them while grieving can feel like a daunting prospect.

What a child needs more than anything is your love and care. Many parents underestimate just how much support they are already giving their child in such difficult circumstances - don't expect too much of yourself, and remember it is important to find ways to support yourself too.

What can help my child?

When you have to make tough decisions, concentrate on what feels right for you and your child, after all you know your child best. Work at your own pace and try not to be overly influenced by what other people say you should be doing or feel pressured into doing things that don’t feel right for you. The most important and helpful thing for a child is stability, time with you, a familiar routine and being reassured that you love them and are there for them. Your confidence to help your child with their grief will grow with time. Your family will of course be forever changed by what has happened, and it is important to recognise that there is no timescale on grief and that it will take patience and time to adjust to the new reality, but you can grow stronger together.

For more from parents supported by Child Bereavement UK on some of the issues they faced when looking after bereaved children, whilst grieving themselves, and what helped them, watch our film, Parenting bereaved children.

When should I tell my child that their parent has died?

Telling a child that someone has died can feel daunting but it’s important to share the news with them as soon as possible, if you can. Tell them in a place that is comfortable and familiar and be physically close to them. It may help to have another adult your child trusts with you for support, who can take over if you become overwhelmed and upset. Explain truthfully what has happened. Children can often overhear conversations or find out through friends or social media, and young children can often fill in the gaps in their knowledge and what they don’t know they often tend to make up; what they imagine may cause additional confusion or upset and be worse than the reality. One 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.'

Children can feel confused, worried or guilty if they are left guessing, so it is important that they are included and given the information they need so they feel that they can trust the adults around them. 

How should I tell my child that their parent has died?

The courage it takes to talk to your child about death cannot be underestimated. This is a huge responsibility, which can feel overwhelming. As a parent or carer, it is natural to want to protect your child. You may want to keep from your child the details of how their parent died, or try to hide your own grief or difficult feelings. Children we have supported at Child Bereavement UK often tell us that this can leave them feeling left out and confused. Children tend to know when something significant has happened and often pick things up from or overhear conversations between adults. They watch adults and will notice and be affected by your reactions, even if they don’t fully understand. Even very young children will pick up from your body language that something serious has happened. 

Children need information and explanations that are honest and in language they understand. Try to use real words like 'dead' and 'died' and avoid using other phrases that can be very confusing for children, such as 'gone to the stars', 'gone to sleep', 'lost' or 'passed away' which can cause worry and misunderstanding.

To explain what death means to young children, you might say:

When someone has died, their body doesn’t work anymore. They don’t feel any pain, they are not scared, and they don’t need anything. Being dead isn’t like being asleep: when you are asleep your body still works really well.

Invite your child to ask questions, and to say what they think. Be honest and say if you don’t know the answer to something. You can say that if you do find out the answer, you will tell them.

Let your child see how you are feeling. Children learn about feelings by watching the adults around them. It is OK to show that you are sad. You might say: 'I am very sad because Daddy has died. I am OK but people do sometimes get upset when sad things happen.'

Very often, younger children can be concerned that in some way they caused their parent to die. Younger children often feel that their thoughts are very powerful, and that if they think something, they can make it happen. If this is the case, they need to be reassured that nothing they did, said or thought made this happen.

You are likely to need to repeat information many times and answer lots of questions. Grief can be exhausting, and struggling with your own feelings and being asked the same questions over and over again can be extremely hard - but this is a child’s way of trying to make sense of what has happened. Children can often only take in a little information at a time, especially when it is upsetting and difficult to hear.

How might my child react when I tell them their parent or carer has died?

Children and young people tend to show feelings with behaviours rather than words and their understanding will be affected by their age and understanding. Their reactions can vary greatly from showing extreme distress, to looking blank as if nothing has happened, or even giggling nervously – all these are normal. Younger children may move in and out of their grief, sometimes being very upset, followed by going back to playing and seeming unaffected. This ‘puddle jumping’ between feelings is normal and is a child’s way of coping with difficult emotions. Watch our short animated film, Puddle Jumping for more information.

Not reacting at first does not mean that your child doesn’t care or hasn’t heard you. They may suddenly come back with a reaction, or may become very quiet and want to avoid the subject, or questions may come later. It is not unusual for a child to feel anxious or insecure, angry or confused about the death and why it has happened.

Teenagers are likely to have an adult understanding of the concept of death but often have their own beliefs and strongly held views, and may challenge the beliefs and explanations offered by others. They may be reluctant to seek support from family and may look to friends for support; some find meeting peers with similar experiences very helpful. Some teenagers may become apathetic and withdrawn while others may throw themselves into a hectic social life as a way to shut out the pain. A teenager may find it helpful to watch our short animated films on managing emotions: Volcano and The Invisible Suitcase. You may also find our resource on supporting bereaved teenagers helpful.

How will my child grieve?

Children’s understanding of death and their reactions are likely to vary. The way in which your child understands and reacts to the death of their parent will be influenced by the relationship they had with them, the circumstances in which they died, your child’s stage of development and their emotional maturity, their experiences in life so far, and your family’s cultural and any spiritual beliefs.

Children and young people can grieve just as deeply as adults, but they often show it in different ways. How you manage your own grief will also influence how your child copes with theirs. They learn how to grieve by copying the responses of the adults around them and rely on adults to provide them with what they need to support them in their grief.

Young children in particular have a limited ability to put feelings, thoughts and memories into words. They tend to show how they’re feeling through behaviours rather than expressing themselves verbally, so a child’s behaviour is often your guide to how they might be feeling. This is as true for a very young child as it is for a teenager. They will gradually gain the language of feelings by listening to words that you use. Showing your grief will also encourage them to express theirs.

Children are naturally good at dipping in and out of their grief. They can be intensely sad one minute, then suddenly switch to playing happily the next. This apparent lack of sadness may lead adults to believe children are unaffected. However, this 'puddle-jumping' in and out of grief behaviour is a type of inbuilt safety mechanism that stops them from being overwhelmed by powerful feelings.

As children get older, this instinctive ‘puddle-jumping’ becomes harder and teenagers may spend longer periods of time in one behaviour, such as being withdrawn or keeping very busy as a way to mask how they are feeling. As a child matures and their understanding grows, they may need to revisit their grief, asking questions or experiencing sadness at later stages. Revisiting grief is normal and it does not necessarily mean they weren’t supported enough earlier in their grief.

How can I support my grieving child when their parent or carer has died?

A child’s sense of security will be shaken by such a significant loss, and this can make children feel very anxious. Stability and routine are important in helping children feel secure and build resilience. When someone important to them has died, ideally, children need to stay in familiar surroundings with people who are part of their day-to-day life and do the things they normally do as far as possible. Trying to maintain normal levels of boundaries in terms of behaviour can help your child feel more secure. A child of any age can often need more physical affection than usual such as regular hugs.

Children need lots of reassurance about who they have in their life to support them after a parent has died. Share basic plans about practicalities such as who will help them with their homework or take them to school or activities. 

Older children may be more aware of other losses that might have to occur, and have worries such as: 'Will we be able to stay in this house? Will I still be able to go to college or university?'. Children value being included in discussions and decisions around things that affect them directly.

Children can worry that you or other people important to them might become ill and die too and may have separation anxiety. When you need to leave them, tell them when you will be back and stick to it so that they don’t become concerned about where you are and if you are late, for instance.

They may also fear that death is 'catching'. It is not unusual for instance for children to talk about having symptoms similar to those of the parent who died of an illness. It is helpful to listen and take this seriously, and to offer reassurance and a loving response.

How do I help my child express and understand their feelings? 

It is natural as a parent to focus on finding ways to support your grieving child. Adults instinctively want to protect children, but children can also be very good at protecting adults close to them and as a result may at times choose to hide their feelings for fear of upsetting you. Children learn how to grieve by watching the adults around them, so don’t be afraid to show your child how you are feeling – hiding your own feelings to protect your child can leave them confused about the feelings they have and they may feel they should copy this behaviour leading them to bottle up their emotions.

Children often don’t have the adult vocabulary to explain how they are feeling, and a grieving child may demonstrate their distress through their behaviours including anger, sleep disturbance, clinginess and reverting to being more babyish, or even acting more grown up than usual. These are only a cause for concern when they last for a long time and affect your child’s ability to engage with life. Sometimes, younger children will ‘act out’ elements of the story of their parent’s death, and this can be disturbing to the adults around them; try to remember that this is one way in which children can begin to make sense of what has happened. Explain to your child that they will have periods of feeling happy where they may temporarily not think about the death of their parent and that this is OK too.

Anger is a common reaction to loss. Children can feel very angry with the parent who has died and left them, or they may be angry with you for surviving. If the death was sudden, there may have been no opportunity to say goodbye. They may have regrets about something they said or did, or wish they had said or done. The child may also be adjusting to the new reality that as a lone parent you cannot give them the same attention as before.

If their parent was ill for a long time before they died, children may feel a sense of relief or they may also have resented how life changed when their parent was ill and feel guilty about these understandable emotions. It is important to tell your child that these feelings, while difficult, are understandable and normal.

It is not unusual for children of any age to feel responsible in some way for the death, however irrational this may seem. They will need very clear reassurance that they are not to blame.

Children’s books about loss and death, and online resources for young people, can help their understanding of what has happened and the emotions they are experiencing.

You may find it helpful to watch our short animated films, Volcano and The Invisible Suitcase which suggest ways in which children can be helped to cope with difficult feelings.

How can my child’s nursery, school, college or university help? 

Your child’s place of education, be it nursery, school, college or university, can help by providing normality, routine and social contact alongside any specific support they may be able to access there. It is important to talk to your child’s carers, teachers or a contact at college, such as a welfare officer, so that staff are aware of what has happened and can offer appropriate support. It can be helpful to identify one member of staff as a key contact. 

Many children and young people may worry about their friends or teachers knowing what has happened and ideally they should be involved in deciding what their school friends are told about their bereavement and what would help them when they return to school. They may need time out during class and to have someone they know they can go to if they are feeling upset. This can be talked through with your child and discussed with teachers.

Most children do not want to be seen as different when at school and prefer to be treated the same as everyone else. However, this should not prevent staff from offering discreet and sensitive care and support. Often, school offers stability and routine when it feels like life at home has been turned upside-down and everything is different. Good communication between school and home will help ensure that everyone is aware of how your child is managing and can make any necessary adjustments.

Given the choice, most children bereaved of their parent do not want to be excluded from special activities around occasions such as making cards for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, but these need to be handled sensitively, and the child asked discretely beforehand whether or how they would like to take part, for example by making a card for another important person in their life.

If a young person is bereaved while studying away from home, you may not have access to someone to speak to about their situation due to issues around student confidentiality, and it can be difficult to know if they are struggling. Encourage your child or young person to find out about and use wellbeing services offered by their university or college. It may be that they will need to speak to their tutors about any options available should they need time off or be taking exams, for instance.

You might like to let your child’s place of education know that Child Bereavement UK produces comprehensive resources for schools and further education including a free downloadable guide, Managing bereavement in schools alongside other free resources. We can also offer support to your child’s school, college or university

Can my child’s friends help when my child is grieving?

Children need to have fun and do things they enjoy – playing or socialising are in themselves therapeutic ways of coping. Encourage your child to see their friends where possible and help them work out how they would like to tell their friends what has happened.

Explain how you share your feelings, who you talk to and how it helps. Some of your child’s friends may like to be given suggestions about ways they can be supportive, otherwise they may feel embarrassed at not knowing what to do or say, and this can make a child who is grieving feel excluded. Be mindful that children can be cruel in the playground, and sadly some bereaved children get bullied, but most schools will be able to intervene and have policies for tackling bullying. Children may also at times feel jealous of their friends who still have their mum or dad.

Teenagers particularly often go to their friends to seek help and support. Young people we have supported have told us that when someone important in their life has died, they often feel misunderstood by friends and the adults around them, and consequently they feel alone in their grief.

They can find it difficult to talk to their parents and might prefer to talk to their friends. However, sometimes friends may be sympathetic but find it hard to really understand what the bereaved teenager is feeling. If you are worried about your bereaved teenager, you can help them identify someone they might be happy to speak to. 

You might say:

It can be really hard having all these muddled feelings and it can help to share them with someone. Is there anyone you can think of that you might be happy to talk to about how you feel? Or would you like me to find someone?

How can I help my child remember their mum or dad who has died?

Finding ways to remember someone who has died can be very important to grieving children who can worry that they might forget the person. You can support your child to remember things they and others did with their parent before they died. Some things that your child might find helpful include looking together at photographs, sharing family stories or memories of events involving them and their parent, choosing and being able to keep an item of their clothing or jewellery, playing music their parent loved, and making a scrapbook about them. Watch our short animated film on remembering someone special who has died for more ideas.

How can I look after myself while supporting my bereaved child?

Managing life while grieving and parenting your child or children can be exhausting. Don't put yourself under pressure to be a 'super parent' - managing day by day can feel like a challenge but as a carer of others, looking after yourself is also extremely important. If it is possible, find ways to make time for yourself to recharge your batteries. Some parents find it very hard to find the time to do this, or to ask others for help, but it will ultimately help you be better placed to support your child.

Others may offer to support you and you may find it useful to make a list of jobs that others can help you with. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.

Should my child view the body of their parent who has died?

Making a decision about this may not be easy – be guided by what feels right for your family. As long as children are well prepared for what they will see, and they do not feel pressured, bereaved children have told us that seeing the person can be helpful and not something they regret doing. It can help them to understand what has happened, and to say goodbye.

Viewing the body of someone who has died is just one way of saying goodbye and it may be helpful to share other ways of remembering someone special who had died with them. We also have some creative activities for grieving children which can help a child to remember and talk about their special person.

Preparing your child is vital. If possible, arrange to see your partner’s body first, so that you know what they look like and can describe to your child the building and the room they are in, who is looking after them, what they are dressed in and how they look, to prepare both them and yourself as much as possible.

For more guidance, read our resource on supporting a child to view the body of someone important who has died.

Should my child attend their parent’s funeral? 

As long as a child is prepared for what is going to happen and what they will see, attending the funeral can be a helpful experience and can be an opportunity to process their understanding and say goodbye. How you explain a funeral to your child will be based on their age and understanding.

A good starting point is to talk about what a funeral is and why we have them. What you say will of course be influenced by your culture, beliefs or religion, if you have one. In all cases, a clear, age-appropriate explanation that takes into account the child’s understanding can help a child understand a funeral, make informed choices about attending or participating,  and know what to expect if they are attending.

You may find it useful to watch our short animated films with your child:

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.