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Supporting a child with bereavement

Having to deal with the death of a child, parent or member of staff at a childcare setting is thankfully a rare occurrence. But it isn't just through death that children can experience loss. They can also suffer if they stop seeing a parent, sibling or friend because of divorce, adoption or even moving house.

Here Joanna Matthews, an Educational Psychologist, gives some practical strategies you can use to help the children in your care.

Your role

Childcare professionals have an important role to play in helping children to understand loss. When children experience strong emotional upset, keeping to familiar routines, such as going to nursery, can help to reduce their anxiety.


Children's reactions

We often consider children too young to understand loss but even very young children notice when someone close to them is gone. And children around two and half years old often ask questions to help them understand, such as. "When is daddy coming back?" and "Who will give him food down in his grave?". Make sure you answer any questions with clear, factual answers.

The way children respond to loss varies depending on their maturity and experiences. It's important not to expect a child to react in any particular way. Many young children have little or no reaction but some will have strong emotional outbursts or shock. It can be useful to confirm these reactions, for example, by saying, "I can see that you are angry, I am angry too and also sad that she has died".

Children who experience loss are unlikely to have any knowledge to help them make sense of events. Some will think up fantasies and in these cases their misunderstandings need clarification. Following a loss it is also common for children's play to reflect what is happening around them. This is healthy and should not be discouraged.

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Ceremonies and activities

Young children benefit from being involved in ceremonies such as funerals, if they have been prepared for it. Even if they do not fully understand what is happening it provides them with an important reference point as their understanding develops. If a child or member of staff from your setting dies you should consider holding a short ceremony to talk about what has happened and to remember them. Activities could include singing songs or letting a balloon go in their memory.

Sharing storybooks or a nature walk (where children often see dead insects) are a good basis for discussion. When planning these sessions think about the type of questions children may ask and how you will answer them factually. You may find these bereavement booklists useful, there's one for picture books and one for eight years and over.

In time the majority of children learn to process their feelings and reactions. But they all benefit from taking part in rituals for grief, having access to open and truthful communication and being supported to understand what has happened.

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Concerned about a child?

If you're concerned about a child or need advice contact your area Advisory Team:

  • North east: SectorNE@surreycc.gov.uk
  • North west: SectorNW@surreycc.gov.uk
  • South east: SectorSE@surreycc.gov.uk
  • South west: SectorSW@surreycc.gov.uk

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