By the age of 16 at least one child in every classroom (1 in 29) will have experienced the death of a parent or sibling (Penny & Stubbs, 2015).
These deaths are one of the most fundamental losses that a child will ever experience and without the right support it can lead to a range of problems, some of which can persist into adulthood. Other deaths may also affect a family and one study showed the 78% of secondary school pupils felt that someone significant in their lives had died.
The death of a close family member has been shown to be a risk factor for children and young people, links have been shown to:
- lower academic attainment
- lower aspirations for continued learning
- increases in physical health complaints
- more risk taking behaviours
- higher levels of anxiety and depression (into adulthood)
- an increased risk of school exclusion and youth offending.
What can you do to help?
The roles that schools play following a death can be varied; some may not have been told about a death, whereas others may experience a death that also has an impact on the wider school community.
Children of all ages will experience grief but how they understand and express it is different. Some of the more common reactions following a bereavement are:
- Anxiety - difficulty leaving a parent or becoming overly anxious about everyday tasks
- Sadness – becoming quiet and withdrawn
- Avoidance – may avoid things that remind them about death, including people who remind them of the deceased
- Impaired ability to concentrate or focus - this may be as a result of their grief and/or specific anxieties
- Extreme tiredness
- Anger or acting out difficult behaviour, which may mask sadness and depression
- Sleep difficulties – fears, nightmares or dreams, especially if there has been confusion about what happened to the person who died
- Guilt – especially if they connect something they said or did e.g., an argument, with the death
- Physical complaints – distress is often expressed physically but sometimes complaints may mirror those of the deceased.
The most important thing you can do for children is to acknowledge the death and allow them to talk about it. Discussing a death with a child can seem like a very tall order but remember; nothing you say will make it worse, the worst has already happened. Initially it may be useful to say things like “I am so sorry to hear that your mum died” or “I am here if you would like to talk”
In general terms children and young people find it really helpful when adults are able to validate and acknowledge their feelings.
As with so many things good communication can be so helpful. Pupils benefit if all staff who come into contact with them are aware of their loss, it can help avoid unnecessarily painful comments e.g. “Can you ask your mum to…” or “Why have you not done your homework” (after a funeral”.
Helping peers to think through how to talk about and support a bereaved classmate is one of the most effective interventions, especially if this is coupled with talking to the bereaved pupil about what they would like communicated to the class.
Every pupil’s needs are different. However, it can be helpful to bear in mind two apparently opposing ideas:
- Things are different for them because of their loss and it is helpful for this to be acknowledged
- They also want to be treated in the same way as others.
They don’t want to be defined by their loss, however it is important to be sensitive to the ongoing impact it will have on them.
Supporting the child is only part of the story. It’s also important to consider the wellbeing of the staff as well. This might involve supporting the staff member working directly with the child, the teacher or if the person was known to the staff, you may to consider the whole team’s needs. Be mindful of the emotional impact (either direct or indirect) on them. Offer them space and time for a break, sources of support and opportunities to remember.
There may be instances where you feel that you need to seek extra support. Winston’s Wish has a National Helpline (08452 03 04 05) available to call between 9am and 5pm Monday – Friday, as well as an email support service available through our website. We also offer training for schools – more details are on our website. Whatever the need, we are here to help.
Sacha Richardson is the Director of Family Services at Winston’s Wish – the charity for bereaved children. He is a UKCP registered Psychotherapist who has worked with bereaved children, parents and families since 1994.