Many children and young people will experience loss through bereavement during their school years. They may experience the death of a parent or relative, or the death of a close school friend. In some cases the death will be as a result of trauma, a serious accident, or suicide.
This page provides some advice for parents, carers and professionals such as teachers in supporting their children and young people through these times.
Some ways to help older children/young people following a bereavement or critical incident
(Based on the work of the Bereavement & Critical Incident Team, Telford & Wrekin & Shropshire County Council Educational Psychology Service)
- Sympathetic listening: Young people need familiar, trusted adults who will enable them to talk about what has happened and express how they are feeling.
- Acknowledging the young persons loss directly: This lets the young person know that you are aware of what has happened. It also gives the young person permission to talk about his/her grief.
- Accurate and swift information about what has happened will help to dispel rumours: Give information and answer questions honestly. This includes saying “you don’t know” if you don’t. What young people are not told, they will make up or try to find out from friends, acquaintances or the media. What young people are not told they may imagine, which may be far worse.
- Do not feel that you need to hide your own feelings from young people: Young people, especially adolescents are likely to be very self-conscious about expressing their feelings. Boys in particular may feel that they are “too big to cry”. It is likely to help young people to see that it is normal to be upset by death and that crying or showing emotion is nothing to be embarrassed about.
- This is likely to be a first experience of death for some: Young people will look to the adults around them as a guide as to how they should behave.
- Be aware of young people who may be particularly vulnerable: because of this event triggering emotional reactions to experiences of their own, either past or present.
- Help the young people to express their grief whilst still maintaining familiar structure and routines: This will provide some sense of normality and help to give a sense of security. Some young people may wish to talk about what has happened, make cards or write letters to the family. Others may take more time to absorb what has happened and prefer to maintain their normal routine. A balance needs to be struck between modelling emotionally healthy ways of coping and offering security by maintaining familiar routines and structures.
- Adjust work expectations: The quality and quantity of work may be reduced possibly for quite a long period. Make allowances and where appropriate inform external agencies for external assessments. Consult with the young person about whether to record what has happened in the pupil's school records so that information is available as appropriate for other schools/colleges in due course.
- Encourage young people to contribute to memorials: Adolescents may find it helpful to generate ideas for a lasting memorial and in due course and with the family’s agreement, help to organise a collection. They should also be invited to contribute to a memorial service with their memories of the person who has died.
If a young person has witnessed a traumatic event
A traumatic event is one in which an unexpected death has occurred, or where a person involved has been afraid they may die.
Reactions are likely to be strongest in those closest to the incident, who directly witnessed the aftermath and who were involved in the immediate care of victims.
Common reactions to traumatic events
The following responses are normal and to be expected in the first few weeks:
- Emotional reactions such as feeling afraid, sad, horrified, helpless, overwhelmed, angry, confused, numb or disorientated
- Distressing thoughts and images that just pop into your head
- Disturbed sleep or insomnia
- Feeling anxious
- Low mood
These responses are a normal part of recovery and are the mind’s mechanisms of trying to make sense and come to terms with what happened. They should subside over time.
What can people do to cope?
- The most helpful way of coping with an event like this is to be with people you feel close to and normally spend time with.
- If it helps, talk to someone you feel comfortable with (friends, family, co-workers) about how you are feeling.
- Talk at your own pace and as much as you feel it’s useful.
- Be willing to listen to others who may need to talk about how they feel.
- Take time to grieve and cry if you need to. Letting feelings out is helpful in the long run.
- Ask for emotional and practical support from friends, family members, your community or religious centre.
- Try to return to everyday routines and habits. They can be comforting and help you feel less out of sorts. Look after yourself: eat and sleep well, exercise and relax.
- Try to spend some time doing something that feels good and that you enjoy.
- Be understanding about yourself.
How can children be helped to cope?
- Let them know that you understand their feelings.
- Give them the opportunity to talk, if and when they want to.
- Respect their pace.
- Reassure them that they are safe.
- Keep to usual routines.
- Keep them from seeing too much of the frightening pictures of the event.
When should a person seek more help?
In the early stages, psychological professional help is not usually necessary or recommended. Many people recover naturally from these events. However, some people may need additional support to help them cope. For example, young children, people who have had other traumatic events happen to them and people with previous mental health difficulties may be more vulnerable.
If about a month after the event anyone is still experiencing the following difficulties, it is a good idea to seek help:
- Feeling upset and fearful most of the time
- Acting very differently to before the trauma
- Not being able to work or look after the home and family
- Having deteriorating relationship difficulties
- Using drugs or drinking too much
- Feeling very jumpy
- Still not being able to stop thinking about the incidents
- Still not being able to enjoy life at all
After the Manchester Arena bombing on 22nd May 2017, the Department for Education funded a set of face-to-face training materials to support schools when a critical incident occurred. This was subsequently adapted into a set of online resources as part of a Doctoral research project at the University of Manchester.
'This resource is intended to be used by both Educational Psychology Services and school staff (e.g. Senior Leadership Team, Special Educational Needs and Disability Coordinators). The expectation is that school staff will use this resource under the direction of their link Educational Psychologist, in order to ensure that it is used appropriately and that the well-being of all accessing this resource is maintained.' (Source)
The slides from the training can be found here: Useful links and resources.
Bereavement and loss
Most critical incidents involve bereavement and loss. TCIR offer training materials designed to help staff to feel better prepared to respond to bereavement, both as part of a critical incident and at other times of loss.
They also have a link to an article from the Bereavement Care journal on supporting children and young people with autism during times of loss and bereavement.
Other sources of help and support
Last updated 25-04-2023.