Caring for bereaved children in the early days and weeks

A sudden death is devastating for children and their families. There is no time to prepare or say goodbye. In many cases the death is violent and horrific; such as when someone dies in a road crash, or takes their own life. In many cases the person who dies is a parent or sibling, leaving behind a bereft family.

Like adults, children affected by sudden death need loving support and information. It is often better to tell children things through honest discussion and involve them in decision making, rather than keep them in the dark and leave them excluded in an effort to protect them from the truth.

During the first few days and weeks after someone dies suddenly it is normal to suffer awful shock. Children and young people respond to shock in a similar way to adults, but they may express these emotions differently, which can be linked to both their developmental stage as well as their limited experience in dealing with traumatic situations. They will also grieve in different ways at different times.

They may cry, get angry, be quiet, be noisy, talk about the person who died, not talk about them, and play or behave as though nothing has happened. They may suddenly switch from one reaction to another. All these reactions and many more are normal responses in sudden bereavement.

The types of reactions children may experience include:

  • Difficulty comprehending death – depending on the age of the child, it can be hard for them to understand the finality of death and the fact they will never be able to see their loved one again.
  • Denial – it’s not uncommon for a child who is suddenly bereaved to wake in the morning and forget their loved one has died, only to have to remember and re-experience it all over again.
  • Shock and physical symptoms – given children’s limited life experience, they are unlikely to have experienced shock to this degree, which can make it even more frightening. Things like feeling cold and shivery, having no appetite, or feeling physically sick could be particularly distressing and feel very abnormal to a child, despite being a ‘normal’ response to shock.
  • Need for information – just as adults often want to know the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘when’ and ‘whys’ surrounding a death, so do children. This is why clear and open discussions with children are so important following a sudden bereavement.

Sudden produces a children’s book aimed at children who have experienced a sudden bereavement. It encourages discussion and honesty within families, providing opportunities for adults to share information and children to share thoughts and feelings. The book suggests ways children and parents or carers can support each other, and gives practical tips on how children can help themselves feel better and remember the person who has died.

There is also an accompanying guide for parents and carers. It offers a step-by-step guide for adults, explaining the content of the children’s book and offering suggestions on supporting a grieving child.

Find out more and download a digital copy of the book.