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Brake’s work supporting suddenly bereaved children and young people
Gillian McMahon, helpline officer, Brake
Brake’s support services include a freephone, accredited helpline (0808 8000 401) and a range of literature for people who have been bereaved or seriously injured in road crashes and professionals working with them. See brake.org.uk/support.
Brake also operates Sudden, an initiative sharing best practice, research and tools among professionals working with people following any type of sudden bereavement. This includes providing literature on coping with grief for adults and children bereaved by any type of sudden death, such as murder or drowning. See sudden.org.
I’d like to start by explaining briefly how sudden and traumatic bereavement impacts on children. I’ll focus on what Brake is doing to support bereaved children, particularly through our literature, but also through our helpline for road crash victims. Finally, I’ll outline some of the ways you might be able to offer support within your role when the worst happens.
Sudden is an initiative by Brake, the road safety charity, which aims to:
increase awareness and understanding of the suffering of suddenly bereaved people and their support needs;
help professionals and carers provide best practice services for suddenly bereaved people that meet their support needs, by sharing guidance, initiatives and research and running training, networking and professional development opportunities;
support and encourage partnerships and sharing of best practice between organisations caring for specific groups of suddenly bereaved people, such as murder victims, suicide victims, and road death victims; and
help suddenly bereaved people access specialist care through the provision of free information and advice.
Sudden death and the impact on children
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, brother or sister, leaving behind a bereft family.
Like adults, children affected by road death and injury need loving support and information. It is often better to tell children things through honest discussion and involve them in decision making, rather than keeping them in the dark and leaving 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 – particularly, depending on the age of the child, it can be hard to understand the finality of death and the fact they will never be able to speak to their loved one again.
Denial – it’s not uncommon for someone 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. This is part of the shock response.
Shock and physical symptoms – Given children’s limited life experience, particularly young children, 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.
‘Someone has died suddenly’ books
Brake produces two children’s books and an accompanying guide for each featuring the characters Amy and Tom. The first is a road crash-specific book aimed at children who have lost a loved one in this way, Someone has died in a road crash. Brake had for a long time produced a guide for adults, handed to families by police following every UK road death.
Someone has died in a road crash was developed to make sure children were not excluded from the grieving process by providing them with their own ‘support guide’. Given Brake’s expertise in the area, and the positive response received on the book, this was then adapted into a book for children affected by any type of sudden death, Someone has died suddenly.
The books encourage discussion and honesty within families. They provide opportunities for adults to share information and children to share their thoughts and feelings. The books suggest ways children and their parents or carers can support each other. They give practical tips for ways children can help themselves feel better and remember the person who has died.
The accompanying guides offer a step-by-step guide for adults, explaining the content of the children’s books and offering suggestions on how they can support a grieving child.
The books feature two main characters, Amy and Tom, who have been bereaved. By explaining their experiences, Amy and Tom can help bereaved children feel less alone. The books begin with an introduction to death, shock and sadness. It is difficult for children to comprehend the enormity of death, and to understand why it has happened. The books encourage frank discussions between children and their carers about how the person died and what happens to the body.
These are all things that adults affected by the death might be talking about and having to deal with. However, they are often the kind of topics adults want to protect children from, which can exclude children from the grieving process and be damaging.
Children can overhear snippets of conversation and, given their active imaginations, they can imagine things that are even worse than the truth. The chance to have things explained to them in language they can understand is important, along with the opportunity for them to ask questions as they try to process complex information and their emotions.
Within each book there is a section called “Your feelings matter more than anything”, which offers non-prescriptive advice to children about some of the different emotions they may or may not experience, while explaining that these emotions are normal.
It tackles various emotional states and situations, including:
anger and ways to channel this safely;
guilt and blame, with reassurance that they weren’t to blame;
isolation, and assuring them they are not alone, as well as making sure that these feelings are not compounded by being excluded by other children;
things that other people may say, to help make children resilient to sometimes unhelpful comments; and
not wanting to do anything, helping and encouraging children to be happy and active.
Coping with grief
Sudden’s Coping with grief booklet is another free resource adapted from our long-running road crash bereavement packs, which is appropriate for adults and young people bereaved through all types of sudden death. It is highly acclaimed in feedback from victims and professionals working with them. It explains common reactions following a sudden death and helps to normalise the way people feel.
It also provides practical advice on how to cope. While it’s not designed for children, it can be a useful way for adults supporting children to understand the emotional impact of sudden death and is suitable for use by older teenagers and young people. Copies of this booklet are available for free from the Brake shop.
Brake support for road crash victims
Where a sudden death is as a result of a road crash, Brake can provide a wide range of specialist help and support to families and professionals working with them. We can do this through our literature; our support packs for bereaved families are handed out by police following every UK road death and can be accessed at brake.org.uk/support.
We also offer a range of support through our helpline. This includes:
providing a listening ear, so callers can talk about what they are going through;
providing advice on how to cope with the terrible shock and trauma;
helping callers understand procedures, such as how to seek legal help and court cases;
liaising with officials on callers’ behalf so their voice can be heard;
helping callers access face to face support and counselling from appropriate experts;
putting callers in touch with other support groups (both national and local); and
advising professionals working with bereaved and injured road crash victims, to help them ensure they are supported.
While we are mainly talking directly to the adults affected, a lot of our calls are from bereaved adults seeking help and advice on how to best support children.
Other sources of support and info
There is a range of specialist child bereavement charities that provide support nationally. There are also in most areas local support services. Through our helpline, Brake often signposts, refers and aids access to additional services, after assessing needs and while providing as much help as we can directly. Helping a family access services appropriate to their needs not only means they get the right support, it can also save that family time trying to research services for themselves at a time when they already have so much to deal with.
Some charities specialise in certain types of sudden death, such as Brake’s work with road crash victims. Often a Google search will provide you with this information and enable you to find out what extra support might be available. If you are signposting families, it is always worth checking the details first. Unfortunately, many charities have had to cease their work or make drastic cuts and this is not always reflected in information online. If you make that initial call, it saves the family the frustration of mentally preparing to talk about their experience only to ring up and find out the service is no longer available.