13/03/2015 15:22 GMT | Updated 20/05/2015 10:12 BST

Helping Children Through Bereavement

Mother holding shy son

I knew there was something wrong. My eight-year-old son had been unusually quiet, and was beginning to lose his edge at school. He told me he couldn't get to sleep, and couldn't concentrate at school, because he was 'so sad inside' about his twin brother, who died when they were babies. We had always talked about Alex, and I had always been impressed by how mature Josh was about our loss. Why was he suddenly finding it so hard?

Helen Mackinnon is the director of SeeSaw, an Oxfordshire-based childhood bereavement charity I turned to for advice. She tells me delayed grief is not unusual. "Reactions to a bereavement can occur weeks, months or even years after the event, as young people begin to question what happened. This particularly occurs when children have been bereaved at an age when they had only limited information or understanding."

Helen stresses that grief is a normal reaction to bereavement, and that most children can be perfectly well supported by friends and family. "Emotional reactions to a death might include numbness, denial, sadness, guilt or separation anxiety," she tells me. "Children may also experience physical reactions such as tiredness, illness, loss of appetite, lack of energy and sleep disturbances.

"Their behaviour could change: aggression and anger is common, as is regression in areas like toilet training. All these are perfectly normal responses to loss."

So what can a parent do to help their child?

"Talk with your child about what has happened," Helen advises. "Use language they know, and keep checking their understanding.


Above all be there for them: grieving children need your support and presence more than advice.


Showing your own grief is important, and helps children realise what's normal, but let them know it's OK to laugh and have fun too. Practical activities such as putting together photo books or memory boxes can be done as a family, and provide a helpful resource to turn to.

Sometimes children benefit from additional support, and it can be helpful to speak to a child bereavement specialist. Sometimes this could be just a phone conversation for reassurance on how your child is reacting, or to seek advice on attending funerals or discussing difficult issues such as suicide. If a young person is struggling to communicate their feelings, or their attendance or academic performance is suffering, it might be helpful to arrange some individual support.

"Bereavement organisations work in different ways," Helen says. "At SeeSaw, a clinical member of staff visits the bereaved parent in the home to find out how the family is managing. We would then allocate one of our trained support workers to visit the child at home, where they are most comfortable. Where possible we'd advise not taking children out of school, as bereaved children already feel 'different' from their peers."

I have always talked to my son about his twin brother, but however hard I try I can't help but find some conversations upsetting. When he was younger I could dismiss this as 'something in my eye', but he's far too astute to accept this now. I see a wariness in his eyes when he talks to me, as though he's concerned about upsetting me, and I hate the thought that at eight he is already shielding me. I was worried he wasn't telling me everything, and wanted him to talk to someone he wouldn't need to protect.

SeeSaw allocated a support worker to us, and Josh hit it off with her within five minutes of her arriving. I left them to it, half-conversations drifting out from the sitting room where they were looking through photographs. Afterwards I asked Josh how he felt.

"It was nice telling someone about Alex," he said. He read a book to me that his support worker had lent him, about pretending to be happy when inside we're upset. "That's how I feel," he said, and I hugged him tight and told him it was just the same for me.

Grief is a long process, but it doesn't have to be a lonely one.

SeeSaw provides support for Oxfordshire children and their families coping with the death of a parent or sibling. Their book 'What happens when someone dies?' can be ordered from their website, and teachers can download a free Schools Pack.

For families outside Oxfordshire, The Childhood Bereavement Network maintains a directory of organisations across the UK.

More on Parentdish: How to talk to children about death