Bereavement and grief

Grief is a natural response to the death of someone close. Everyone will experience grief in a unique and individual way.

Bereavement and grief

It is, of course, a fundamental loss and adjustment for any child or young person to lose someone important to them – particularly a close family member. But with the right support most children and young people will be able to find a way to move forward.

There are no limits about how long grieving should last and what it should consist of; it is a process that everyone goes through while they adjust and begin to cope with life without the person who they have lost or who has died.

Sometimes, the trauma of the death can block the natural grieving process so that a child or young person becomes ‘stuck.’  This is known as traumatic bereavement. 

Traumatic bereavement

In a traumatic bereavement, how the child of the young person experiences or understands the death – the meaning they make of it – results in it being experienced as traumatic. 

Rather than the intensity of their feelings reducing, a child or young person who has experienced a traumatic bereavement may continue to struggle with overwhelming emotions that impact on day-to-day life.

A child or young person can experience traumatic bereavement at any age, and any type of death can result in a traumatic bereavement. 

There are many factors which may make a bereavement more likely to be traumatic, including:

  • Neglect or abuse
  • Domestic or community violence
  • Loss of birth family
  • Poverty and deprivation
  • War or displacement
  • Neurodevelopmental or learning difficulties

Identifying the signs of traumatic bereavement

When a child or young person experiences the death of someone significant it is likely to be difficult – but it won’t necessarily be traumatic.

Children and young people, like adults, can experience a broad range of emotions when grieving. Although they can be intense and difficult to manage at times, typically the emotions do not impact everyday life persistently.

If the emotions do impact the child or young person’s everyday life, they may be experiencing traumatic bereavement. School staff may notice a student:

  • becoming withdrawn and isolating themselves from others
  • not participating in activities they used to enjoy
  • struggling to concentrate in class
  • having angry outbursts and shouting
  • feeling hopeless and not believing things will get better
  • increasing risk taking behaviours, like using drugs or alcohol or self-harming

These difficulties are likely to be persistent, frequent, severe and a change to the child or young person’s usual behaviour. 

It is also important to consider the child or young person’s response to death in the context of their family culture, belief system and developmental stage.

Top tips for traumatic bereavement

Keep the relationship going

Building on the relationship with a trusted adult is crucial to help the child or young person feel safe again. 

Consider a referral to a specialist service

Following a traumatic bereavement many children and young people will need specialist help to process the trauma of the death, grieve their loss and be supported with any mental health difficulties that have developed. 

Hold the hope

Because traumatic bereavement changes the way children and young people see the world so significantly, it can be much more difficult for them to feel hopeful or optimistic about their lives and their future. Trusted adults in school can ‘hold’ the hope for the child or young person by looking ahead and offering them images of themselves finding enjoyment and success in the future.

What schools and further education settings can do

Concerned about a child?

If you are worried that a child is at risk, involve your designated safeguarding lead (DSL) as a priority. They will contact the parents/carers and other services as necessary. If the child is at immediate risk, please ensure that they are taken, urgently, to their GP or A&E – either by their parents/carers or, where parental contact is not possible, by the school DSL

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Related resources

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Traumatic bereavement animation and resources

Traumatic bereavement animation and resources

Resources to give school staff the knowledge and tools to give traumatically bereaved children and...

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