Children and teenagers can express their grief in a variety of different ways. But it’s important for them to understand that there’s no right or wrong way to respond to the death of a loved one.
Their reaction to the death of someone they’re close to can be influenced by many factors, such as their relationship with the person who has died, how they died, their parents’ responses and the child’s age and stage of development.
A bereavement counsellor can use various methods to help the child understand what they're feeling and come to terms with their loss.
"Grief counselling can give children a space that’s free from expectations that they should behave or respond in a set way," says our member Willis Atherley-Bourne.
Willis, who is the head of family support services at a children’s hospice in Kuwait, adds: “Counsellors support children in finding ways of defining their grief experience that is unique to them. Our role is to facilitate, not lead the child.”
What are the signs that a child is struggling with grief?
Children may not have the ability or vocabulary to explain their feelings after the death of a loved one. Their grief may show itself in other ways.
You may notice a significant change in mood, a reluctance to be away from parents or carers, or a change in their appetite.
“Another feature of grief is regression, where the child behaves in ways more commonly associated with a younger age group,” says Willis. “It may be perceived as bad behaviour or the child being difficult.”
Other signs can include a resistance to bedtime. This is sometimes related to the child being told the person who died is ‘sleeping’ and may feed the child’s belief that they may not wake up if they go to sleep.
Some children develop a more pronounced form of an existing behaviour, such as nail biting. This may be missed as a response to grief and explained as something the child has always done.
It’s important to remember that every child will react differently - there’s not a one-size-fits all response.
What can help a child cope with grief?
Willis says an important starting point “is to ensure children receive a clear and consistent message that the death was not their fault”. This is because some children may assume a responsibility.
It’s important to validate the child’s feelings. Let them know that it’s ok and normal to feel grief. Communicate honestly and clearly and try to avoid euphemisms that can be confusing for a child, such as the dead person is ‘sleeping’.
Willis says: “Children have active imaginations. The human condition is to imagine the worse scenarios when left with a void or fragments of information. Sometimes, avoiding conversations around feelings and death with children serves to shield adults from their own distress.”
He says that instead of avoiding talking, it’s important to “create, offer and maintain spaces that are responsive to a child’s needs”.
“Acknowledge that thoughts and feelings can sometimes be difficult to put into words. The use of drawing or storytelling may offer paths towards the child finding a means of expression.
“Expressing tears in front of a child offers them an opportunity to understand that the feelings they're experiencing may not have words but nevertheless can be expressed and are valid.”
How can bereavement counselling help?
Bereavement counselling can support the child in understanding and coping with their feelings of grief.
A bereavement counsellor will use their training and experience to offer a “responsive, child-centred” environment, says Willis. “This enables the child to develop a language that shapes their grief experience from their own perspective.”
Working in a child-centred way means the counsellor may also offer guidance to those who care for the child, so there is consistent support.
A counsellor’s professional curiosity of the child’s world view acts as a guide as they identify resources and interventions that best meet the child’s need. They may use creative methods, including drawing or play, if a child is unable to express how they feel.
Says Willis: “Grief work with children is a gentle balance of facilitating and psychologically holding the child as they move towards increased self-understanding and forming their own language for grief.”
If you have any comments or would like to share your story, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
More about childhood bereavement
How do you cope with the death of a loved one? How can you deal with the overwhelming feelings of loss and grief? BACP member Sara Mathews explains how counselling can help.
What is counselling?
Find out how counselling works, what therapists do and what happens in a therapy session. We also explain some of the key terms and concepts you may hear.
How to find a therapist
How to use the BACP Register and our online therapist directory to find the right counsellor or psychotherapist for you.