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Children’s grief – How teachers can help bereaved pupils

A single line depicting a flower, representing children's grief

Bob Usher and Tracey Boseley discuss the importance of developing staff understanding, skills and confidence in dealing with children’s grief…

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We are all likely to have experienced some form of bereavement in our lives, and can understand the immense sense of loss and grief that’s involved. Talking about death is difficult, but schools can provide vital support for bereaved pupils and their families. 

What death means 

A child’s understanding about death develops with age. Between the ages of five and seven, children gradually begin to understand that death is permanent and irreversible, and that the person who has died will not return.

As awareness of the finality of death develops, children bereaved earlier in their lives often need to re-process what has happened.  

Young children’s imagination and ‘magical thinking’ can lead some to believe that their thoughts or actions have caused the death, and they can feel guilty.

They may become extremely angry or, alternatively, try to be exceptionally ‘good’, to compensate for what they believe they have done.  

By the end of KS2, most pupils will understand the inevitability of death, and be aware of their own and others’ mortality; this can lead to fear and insecurity.

They will seek information and answers to their questions. Children who are not given sufficient information in age-appropriate language, can ‘make up’ the gaps in their knowledge.

They may also take on the responsibilities of a surviving adult or siblings and, by trying to appear grown up, put themselves under additional stress

How children grieve 

Children can grieve just as deeply as adults, but they often show it in different ways. 

There is no time limit on grief, and it doesn’t go away, it just changes over time. Although the grief will always be there, a bereaved pupil can grow a new life around their grief. Everyone grieves in their own unique way, but it’s hard work and can be exhausting.  

Behaviour following a death can be affected by both loss-orientated thoughts (being tearful and wanting to talk about the person who died) and restoration-orientated thoughts (playing and spending time with friends). Coping with bereavement usually involves switching between each of these mind-sets. 

Younger children can find it difficult to cope with sad feelings for too long, and can ‘puddle jump’, appearing to move in and out of their grief, a bit like they are jumping in and out of a puddle. One common misconception is that a bereaved pupil acting normally in the playground is ‘unaffected by their grief’ or has ‘got over a death’, which is simply not the case. 

Children’s grief – Supporting bereaved pupils 

Most grieving pupils do not need a ‘bereavement expert’, just people who care. By carrying on with the usual day-to-day activities while acknowledging the bereavement, schools can provide a huge amount of support to a grieving child. 

Children learn how to grieve by copying the responses of the adults around them. Younger children in particular have a limited ability to put feelings, thoughts and memories into words, and tend to ‘act out’ rather than expressing themselves verbally. Therefore, their behaviour is often the best indicator as to how they are feeling. 

Adults sometimes feel afraid to say words like ‘dead’, ‘death’ and ‘dying’, to young children. We think alternatives such as ‘passed’, ‘lost’ or ‘gone to sleep’ are less harsh. However, euphemisms often cause confusion and frustration, particularly for younger children who are very concrete in their thinking: ‘passed’ – where to? ‘lost’ – can we look for them? ‘gone to sleep’ – will I die when I go to sleep? 

Children find it easier to have information given in clear, accurate, age-appropriate language. Using ‘dead’ and ‘death’, with a simple biological explanation, is much clearer. Try phrasing the concept as ‘the heart stops beating, the lungs are no longer breathing and the brain does not work anymore’. Or ‘when someone is dead, their body doesn’t work anymore and they no longer feel hot, cold or any pain, nor do they need food or drink’.

Offer clarity

It’s also important to check a pupil’s understanding of the words people use to describe what has happened. Although children may repeat words they have been told by adults, such as ‘heart attack’ (who attacked the heart?) or ‘stroke’ (like stroking a pet?) they might not necessarily understand the meaning. 

A bereaved pupil may experience new rituals surrounding the death, such as religious services and funerals. Alternatively, they may not be included in the events, and just hear what happened through conversation. Children need opportunities to ask questions and receive age-appropriate information. 

It can help a bereaved pupil if their friends are aware what has happened, so it is important to encourage them to share their news, even if it is only with their closest friends. 

Be prepared – a bereavement policy 

It’s much easier to think about how to respond following a death if it’s been thought about beforehand. A bereavement policy can offer guidance for all staff when dealing with death, grief and bereavement. Having a ‘bereavement-aware’ culture will ensure that all members of the school community feel supported. It’s important to be mindful of social media and the indiscriminate spread of news. 

As every school is different and every situation unique, the policy should be a flexible working document. It could include: 

  • Draft outlines of documents, such as letter templates. 
  • Resources to support bereaved pupils, other pupils, vulnerable staff, family/carers. 
  • Designated roles and responsibilities – for example – communication with the family, staff, pupils or press (if required). 

Visit lgfl.net and childbereavementuk.org for more guidance. 

Children’s grief – support guidelines 

Bereaved children are much better placed to manage their grief when supported in school as well as at home.  

  • Check in regularly to see how things are for them. Try asking specific questions about their friends, schoolwork or how their family or carers are. 
  • When appropriate, mention the person who died. It can be very strange for a child when nobody ever talks about their special person. 
  • Activities such as creating a memory box help provide a connection to the person who has died, as the child continues to move on with their life. 
  • Be sensitive to significant anniversary dates and check in to make sure the child is managing their grief. 
  • Try to prepare the bereaved pupil before a lesson where the topics of death or grief may be raised. 
  • Remember that bereavement is forever. From time to time the child may need more support as they process the impact the death has on their life. 

Bereaved families may also look to school for help and guidance. Grieving adults can sometimes struggle to support their child and manage their own grief. 

  • Share information with families and carers. Building and maintaining relationships with a bereaved family means information and support can be shared between home and school. 
  • Signpost support organisations and resources, where necessary. 
  • If there are safeguarding or risk issues, refer to the school policy on what action to take. 

For a comprehensive, free-to-access training tool for schools, created in collaboration with CBUK please visit childbereavement.lgfl.org.uk 


Bob Usher is content manager at LGfL-The National Grid for Learning
Tracey Boseley is head of Education Sector Support at Child Bereavement UK (CBUK). 

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