Child bereavement: #YoureNotAlone

Written by: Alison Penny | Published:
Image: iStock

Children’s Grief Awareness Week takes place in November. Alison Penny looks at how schools can reach out to the significant minority of pupils living with grief

Around one pupil in every classroom has been bereaved of a parent, brother or sister. It’s a bigger number than many of us imagine, but despite the figures, this devastating experience can leave children and young people feeling desperately lonely. This loneliness can take many forms.

  • The loneliness of an experience which none of your friends share: “I feel like I’m the only one this has happened to.”
  • The loneliness of missing the person who has died: “She was the only person who really understood me.”
  • The loneliness of grieving differently to the rest of the family: “I want to talk about him but everyone gets too upset.”

There is plenty that schools can do to support grieving children. Checking that bereavement is included in relevant policies (for example, crisis incident or pastoral support) helps schools to be prepared for a death in the school community.

Arranging training for staff, either face-to-face or online, including training a named bereavement contact, can improve confidence in knowing how to reach out to a bereaved pupil. Local child bereavement services can offer twilight and consultation sessions, and can also help schools plan to include death and bereavement within the curriculum.

It is important that schools have an understanding that bereavement seems to affect how children share their emotions, too. Research by the Childhood Bereavement Network, which is based at the National Children’s Bureau, found that children bereaved of a parent are more likely to keep their fears and feelings to themselves, raising concerns about risks to their emotional health.

Using data on more than 13,000 11-year-olds born across the UK in 2000/01 (who are taking part in the Millennium Cohort Study), the Network found that more than one in four bereaved children said they would keep their worries to themselves, compared to one in five children whose parents were still alive.

A fifth said they definitely did not show their emotions to others, compared to a tenth of those who had not been bereaved. Bereaved children were also less likely to talk to someone at home about their anxieties or share problems with a friend.

What might be inhibiting these bereaved young people? For those reluctant to talk to someone at home, it might be that they are protecting other members of the family. For those who don’t want to talk to a friend, their worries might feel too big to share with peers who aren’t having to deal with the same issues. Or they may be worried about being bullied about their family tragedy.

To tackle this issue, the Childhood Bereavement Network and Grief Encounter are coordinating Children’s Grief Awareness Week with the theme #YoureNotAlone. Running from November 16 to 22 and involving child bereavement services across the UK, the week is a chance to remind young people that there are people out there for them.

It helps for bereaved young people to realise they are not alone. There are others out there like them, going through similar difficulties and learning to live with their loss. In some schools, there are peer support groups including those run by organisations like Seasons for Growth and Rainbows.

In many areas, young people can meet others through local child bereavement services. They can share stories, make a connection and help each other to cope. Provision is patchy though, and should be available in every local area, wherever young people live and however they have been bereaved.

Some young people prefer to connect with others online, and websites such as Hope Again can help them do that in a safe space.

The message of #YoureNotAlone goes out to parents of bereaved young people, too. Parenting after widowhood or the death of a child can be isolating, with many parents reporting neighbours and acquaintances struggling to find the words to reach out, or even deliberately avoiding conversation.

Peer support from organisations such as WAY Widowed and Young and The Compassionate Friends can help parents connect with others who “just get it”. Online and telephone support can help parents feel more connected to others.

Even for professionals supporting bereaved families, it’s important to remember #YoureNotAlone.

For teachers, nurses, GPs and other professionals, supporting bereaved children and their families can feel overwhelming. Professionals want to help but worry about saying the wrong thing or making things worse.

We’re not expecting everyone to become counsellors and support families on their own. We just want professionals to feel ready to acknowledge children’s grief and be kind to them day-to-day. We want professionals to feel part of a network of support for children – knowing when and how to help their families find extra help.

During Children’s Grief Awareness Week, we’re encouraging everyone to share messages of support to bereaved young people and those caring for them, sending the message #YoureNotAlone.

Tackling these difficult subjects can promote understanding and support between peers, helping the 1 in 29 pupils in your school to understand they are not alone.

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