Bereavement is a profound and complex journey for anyone, but for children and young people, it can be an especially challenging path to navigate. Children may not have the vocabulary or emotional maturity to express their grief in the same way adults do. They may exhibit behavioural changes or academic struggles. And when their emotions become too difficult to comprehend, they may isolate themselves from their loved ones.

Understanding Grief In Children & Young People

Every child copes with death differently. But all of them rely on adults to provide them with the support they need. Here’s how you can speak to bereaved children and young people with love, patience and respect. 

Talking to bereaved children

Acknowledge Their Grief

When talking to bereaved children, the first and most fundamental step is to acknowledge their grief. Let them know that it’s okay to feel sad, angry or confused and that you’re there to support them.

Assure them that grief is a natural response to loss and that there is no right or wrong way to manage their emotions. By validating their feelings, you’ll create a space where they feel accepted and understood.

Actively Listen

Active listening is a powerful tool when communicating with bereaved children. Give them your full attention, maintain eye contact and show empathy. This will help create a safe space for them to express their feelings without fear of judgement.

Ask open-ended questions to encourage them to share their thoughts and emotions. Allow them to lead the conversation at their own pace, and be patient as they navigate the complexities of grief.

Use Age-Appropriate Language

Tailor your language to the child’s age and level of understanding. Younger children may struggle with abstract concepts, so it’s important to use concrete language and simple explanations. Be ready to answer their questions honestly and patiently, providing reassurance and comfort as needed.

Avoid using euphemisms that may confuse or frighten the child. Instead, use clear and direct language to explain the reality of the situation. This transparency will help the child understand that death is permanent.

Offer Practical Support

Practical support is invaluable during times of grief. Whether it’s helping with daily tasks or offering a comforting presence, let the child know you’re there to provide support in various ways.

Offer to assist with practical matters like getting dressed, tidying their bedroom or completing homework. These gestures can alleviate some of the burdens the family may be facing, allowing them to focus on healing.

Be Honest

Honesty is key when talking to bereaved children. Whilst it’s essential to use age-appropriate language, avoid sugar coating the reality of the situation. Children are perceptive, and being honest with them builds trust and helps them process the gravity of their loss. This transparency helps the child understand that death is permanent.

Share Positive Memories

Encourage the child to share positive memories of their lost loved one. Celebrating the life that was can be a healing experience, fostering a sense of connection and love even in the face of loss. 

Share your own positive memories if you knew the deceased. This will honour their memory and demonstrate that it’s okay to remember and cherish the joyous moments.

What Not To Say To Bereaved Children

Understanding what not to say to bereaved children is just as crucial as knowing what to say to bereaved children. With the right language, you can prevent unintentional harm during the grieving process.

Talking to bereaved children

Minimise Their Grief

Never minimise a child’s grief by saying things like “you’ll get over it” or “it’s not that bad.” Such statements invalidate their feelings and can hinder the grieving process. Instead, acknowledge the depth of their emotions and offer your support.

Force Them To Talk

Whilst encouraging communication is essential, forcing a child to talk before they are ready can be counterproductive. Respect their pace, and let them know you’re available when they feel comfortable sharing. Patience is key in providing a supportive environment for them to open up.

Avoid The Topic

Ignoring the topic of loss may create a sense of isolation for the child. Instead, gently check in with them, letting them know you’re available to talk when they’re ready. Show them that their feelings matter and that you are willing to listen whenever they need.

Make Assumptions

When talking to bereaved children, avoid making assumptions about how the child should feel or what they need. Everyone processes grief differently, so take the time to understand their unique experience. Instead of assuming, ask open-ended questions that allow them to express themselves on their terms.

Dismiss Their Emotions

Never dismiss or downplay a child’s emotions. Saying things like “don’t cry” or “be strong” may discourage them from expressing their feelings openly. Encourage emotional expression as a healthy part of the grieving process. Let them know that it’s okay to feel a range of emotions and that you’re there to support them through it.

Remember, when talking to bereaved children and young people, your words and actions can make a significant impact. Approach the conversation with empathy, openness, and a genuine desire to support, and you can help them navigate the difficult path of grief with strength and resilience.

For bereavement support in Leicester, contact The Laura Centre. As a dedicated bereavement charity committed to providing therapeutic support, we understand the unique needs of children and young people facing parent or sibling loss.