Supporting bereaved children with special educational needs

Sue McDermott, non-executive director (Manchester seminar) and Katrina Avery, registered director (London seminar), Rainbows GB

Rainbows Bereavement Support GB offer high quality training in bereavement and loss, and have provided fully adapted programmes and training in Great Britain since 1992. The charity has now provided support to over 100,000 children and young people and have offered training and guidance to more than 1,200 schools. Alongside providing fully interactive training, the organisation are also able to support schools and communities to review or develop their own bereavement policy and procedures. Rainbows have expanded considerably, and offer services across the country.

Further information and details on training and resources can be found on Rainbows Bereavement Support GB’s website, at:

Responding to a sudden death

There is no way of knowing how we will react to a sudden death; each individual may have a unique response. It is important to be aware that there is no ‘normal’ response to a sudden bereavement, or reactions that can be classified as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

People with special educational needs may find a sudden death to be particularly challenging, and children and young people in particular may react in a very different way to what might be expected from their peers.

Individuals who have autism and other special educational needs often find it difficult to express their feelings and emotions. This can make grieving particularly hard.

Challenges facing suddenly bereaved children and young people with special educational needs

Emotional understanding can be limited in children with special educational needs. A bereaved child may be aware that they are angry, but be unable to express why they are feeling this emotion.

Expressions of inappropriate emotions can be common following a bereavement, and may be particularly likely in younger children who have more limited vocabularies. For example, a child with special educational needs might state that they are happy about a bereavement. This could be because they are unaware of words such as ‘relief’, or if a loved one’s behaviour was upsetting before the bereavement.

The confusion of a bereavement, and egotistical nature of children, may lead to them falsely holding responsibility for a death. Issues around ‘wrong connections’ and anxiety are common, and a child who has been bereaved by a road traffic crash may become concerned every time a relative chooses to drive. Locations and circumstances associated with the bereavement may become connected with death in a child’s mind.


Change can also present a challenge to people with a learning difficulty, and there is the potential for individuals to react violently. Priorities and immediate reactions to a bereavement may initially be practical in people with special educational needs, with emotional responses following later in the grief process. In particular, an individual may focus on day to day practicalities and schedules and not give any outward signs that they are grieving.

All children who have been bereaved will require the following:

  • To have their questions answered
  • To be listened to
  • Accurate and encompassing information
  • An atmosphere of safety and trust that makes them feel supported.

Bereaved children with special educational needs require all of the above. However, they may also require more specific support.

Specific support needs for children with special educational needs:

  • Clear language
    It is important to avoid using phrases such as ‘gone to sleep’, or ‘gone to heaven’. For children with special educational needs, these phrases can be upsetting and misleading. Be clear and direct, and aware that it may be necessary to repeat information.
  • Clear communication
    Avoidance of misinterpretation and wrong connections is also very important – parents and carers should take care to reassure children that medical conditions such as a headache are not severe.
  • Reflection of the child’s learning style
    Using visual and physical methods may be more effective in autistic children – if a child struggles with writing or reading, use a method that they will find easier.
  • Explain ‘death’ words clearly
    It is important to ensure that children are fully involved in the processes that follow a death. However, it is crucial that words such as ‘funeral’ are explained clearly to ensure that a child is fully aware of what is happening.
  • Routines and practicalities
    Routines help all children feel safe, and can be vital, especially for children with special educational needs. Having back up plans and being reliable are essential, particularly in developing trust and building confidence with a child.

Emotional support

Children with special educational needs need to know that it is OK to be happy. Carers and supporters should accept that they may express grief in unusual ways, and that children’s emotions may change rapidly. Be aware that children with special educational needs may ask ‘unusual’ questions or be interested in gory details.


Schools can be a great place for bereaved children with special educational needs. They can provide a safe space, and allow a sense of normality and routine to return for children. However, it is vital that schools are properly prepared for a bereavement. It is important for schools to have received the correct training, and to have policies and procedures in place. Being prepared, and aware of special days such as anniversaries and birthdays is crucial.