Beating Bereavement: Tackling Grief in School-age Children

16th Jan 2017

The stiff upper lip; a British cliché but an indication that we’re just not very good at talking about emotions. For the 41,000 children who are bereaved each year, this can mean struggling through difficult emotions with little support, trying to muddle through complex feelings and struggling to find ways to make sense of challenging circumstances.

This, says Shared Vision’s Rachel Maloney, means there is a need for ‘emotional literacy’.

“Emotional literacy is a way to give children the language to use so they can talk about the feeling and experiencing. It’s giving them the tools to express how they’re feeling.
“For a lot of bereaved children, they will feel overwhelmed, and they will think that what they are experiencing is not normal – when, in actual fact, what they are experiencing IS normal and is a very natural response to a significant loss.

“Children should understand that the pain won’t always feel as bad as it does at those intense moments, but that it is also perfectly normal and OK to experience these things. It’s giving them the power and the tools to express anger or sadness – if that’s how they’re feeling – rather than holding onto it.”

Of course, this openness flies in the face of long-held British cultural stereotypes. People’s response to someone dealing with grief can be very different. “Sometimes people just get very scared and don’t want to say the wrong thing – so they say nothing,” says Rachel. “Or they’ll just say empty platitudes that are pretty meaningless.

“If a son loses a father, there’s also this idea that he has to step up and be the man of the family. And there’s these real bland statement thrown around, with a lack of understanding about how the child is then going to internalise that message. And if the message is ‘don’t grieve, step up, you’re now in control,’ then that’s difficult.”

Gender differences

Rachel believes there is a gender difference in how children react to grief too, with boy’s at risk of acting out and girls internalising their grief. Teachers are often best placed to spot these signs, and she believes more needs to be done to help teachers to understand grief.

“There’s plenty of opportunities within either the school curriculum or within the PSA curriculum to discuss grief,” she says. “And children do go into those lessons and talk about their feelings and emotions and that all helps to bolster their resilience.

“But if there was greater opportunity for that to happen in schools, and for teachers to have some training, then if the child might be able to speak to a teacher first, before going to a counsellor or another outside mentor, which might not be ideal at that particular time. If everybody had a better basic understanding of grief and its impact on children’s behaviour and development then, when that child comes back into school, there’s a number of people that they could go to who they may have an established relationship with.

“Also, if teachers were able to have a better understanding and have a gentle one-to-one conversation about how they’re feeling, if there’s a safe place they can go if they’re feeling upset – just really simple interventions – that would be very useful.”

Approximately one in every 25 children would have experienced the loss of a sibling or parent – which equates to 1 in every average sized class or form group. Unsurprisingly, Rachel is also passionate about schools being proactive when it comes to grief, putting a plan together so they have a sure fire way of tackling bereavement and supporting bereaved children:

“Every school should have a bereavement policy, she says. “And this policy should be about how they are going to support a child who has been bereaved.

“If you walk into a school as a newly-qualified teacher or a new member of staff you could be referred to the policy – as you are with a behavioural policy and child protection. But if there’s one on bereavement and there’s an expectation for you, as a new teacher to read it, digest it and understand it, then that is going to help. It can only help. It takes it out of the unexpected.”

Of course, tackling grief is difficult, as everybody’s reaction will differ. But work has been done to standardise a pathway. In 2014 the Childhood Wellbeing Research Centre published the Bereavement in childhood report which provided a logical solution to care and support.

Pathway of support

Part of its findings was that good provision should look like triangle of need, with the following 5 levels of support, from universal support through to specialist care:

  • Information about how children grieve, what can help and what services there are
  • An easy-to-access consultative process to agree who and what could help a particular family
  • Support for parents and carers to help their children
  • 1:1 support and peer groups for children and young people
  • Outreach and specialist support for those who are vulnerable or traumatised.

While Rachel attests that the majority of families won’t need this final level of intervention, she said it’s at this point schools might be in a position to act. “What sometimes happens is children might display behaviours in the school environment that goes unseen. What we need then is a proactive approach, rather than a reactive approach.

A further challenge then is ensuring the right support is available once it has been identified. “I think, currently, there’s quite a fragmented approach,” she says. “Childhood bereavement is quite wide so it will depend on the bereavement, the circumstances – if you had a parent or sibling with a terminal illness, then you would most likely have palliative care involved, or hospices, and they would have specific services attached, which you might be able to tap into. But if it is a sudden death, then that’s not something you can tap into all that easily.

“Also, if a child loses their parent and they are in the throes of adolescence, it adds another layer of how that grief is going to manifest itself. If they’re typical teenagers–‘parents are crap, authority is crap’ and the rest of it – and they lose a parent, there’s no way to repair that relationship. That, potentially, has a significant impact on the child’s emotional development and can last through to adulthood if it is not worked through properly.”

One place children and families can go to is Winston’s Wish [], a charity which supports bereaved children. “Even if they are unable to offer direct support, they know where to go to get help,” Rachel says. “They also produce lots of literature, but what we need is for that specialist information to make it through to mainstream places and mainstream professionals.”

Children will always face bereavement and grief, yet it’s only thanks to the work of people like Rachel, Winston’s Wish and the Childhood Wellbeing Research Centre that we’re now beginning to understand how it affects them and how to help them through the process. Cultural change will take time – but we’re on the right path…