This week marks the end of Grief Awareness Week, which runs from 2nd December to 8th December. Whilst many are buzzing with Christmas cheer and excitement, for some families the festive period is experienced with a heavy heart as the feelings of loss and grief for loved ones are felt even more keenly. The time that marks family traditions and celebrations with family and friends who may be no longer with us can make this period a painful time of year. It is our hope, with this blog, that amongst the busy-ness of Christmas shopping and other preparations, that we can take a moment to pause and think of those families who may need some support right now, to help them through a difficult time of year, and in particular, to help provide information and support to help children cope with the initial stages of grief and beyond.
Of course, there is no right or wrong way to grieve and individuals will often experience a whole range of emotions, sometimes all at the same time.
Bereavement can cause many different symptoms and they affect people in different ways. This time of year can be especially difficult for children and their families who have recently lost, or are still grieving the loss of, a loved one. This could be the loss of a family member, friend or even a pet.
Remember, there is no right or wrong way to feel and, as well as bereavement, there are other types of loss in our lives such as the end of a relationship, or losing a job or home.
Grief can impact us through all of these ways.
To help understand the different emotions loss can bring, it can help to look at the 7 stages of grief:
The 7 stages of grief
- Shock – Feelings of shock are unavoidable, even if we have had time to prepare for the loss of a loved one. A person in shock after grief may appear like their usual selves but this is often due to the fact that the reality of the situation has not yet sunk in.
- Denial – This is common after a bereavement. Emotions can become so overwhelming that it can be difficult to come to terms with what has happened.
- Anger – It’s perfectly normal to feel anger in times of loss, but often people try to keep this stage of grief hidden. This can be anger towards the person or thing that has been lost or to the ones left behind.
- Bargaining – This is the stage where a person may try to fix what has happened or plead a ‘higher being’ to bring the person back. There are sometimes thoughts of “‘Maybe I could have done things differently”, “If only I’d not argued with them…” or “If I knew more about their medical condition, I could have intervened”. We may feel helpless, hopeless and consumed by thoughts of, “What if?”
- Depression – The mix of emotions that usually accompanies the grieving process can typically lead to feelings of depression, anxiety and loneliness.
- Acceptance and hope – Humans, by nature, crave contact, connection and support and want to feel part of a tribe. We are better as a tribe than we are as individuals so at some stage in the grieving process individuals to reconnect with loved ones again. Accepting loss means understanding that whilst the situation can’t be changed, an individual has some control over how they choose to respond. This stage can take some people a long time to reach.
- Processing grief – There is no right or wrong way to grieve, the grieving process is completely individual. It is important that an individual grieves in their own way and at their own pace.
It is important to note that an individual will unlikely go through each of these stages in order. They are often experienced at different times and, often, the stages will repeat many times. It is common for feelings to change and take hold unexpectedly during early stages of grief.
The Grieving Brain
After someone has died, the body releases hormones and chemicals which triggers our “fight or flight” response. Each day, small reminders of the loss can once again trigger this same stress response. The left prefrontal cortex (our intellectual mind) takes a bit of a backseat and the primitive mind takes over. The primitive mind only responds within the primitive parameters of depression, anxiety, anger or a combination of all three. This can result in heightened anxiety and an inability to ‘think straight’.
Brain Regions Affected by Grief:
- The Left Prefrontal Cortex. This is often referred to as the ‘Intellectual Mind’. In this area of the brain, we tend to get things right in life, come up with answers based on a proper assessment and are generally very positive. In grief, this area of the brain becomes UNDERACTIVE.
- The Anterior Cingulate Cortex. The anterior cingulate cortex is involved in attention allocation, processing, decision making and error detection. In grief, this area of the brain also becomes UNDERACTIVE.
- The Amygdala. This area of the brain is the fear centre and is often referred to as the fight, flight and depression area of the brain. In grief, this area of the brain becomes OVERACTIVE.
Telling a Child that someone has died
It is important to tell a child of any age when someone important in their lives has died, and ideally, this is done by someone who is closest to them.
Child Bereavement UK has some wonderful tips on helping someone to come to terms with the news that someone has died*:
- Try to tell the child as soon as possible, in a place where they can be supported and away from distractions, for example, at home.
- Use clear language that they can understand. For example: “I have something very sad to tell you. You know Grandad has been very poorly for a while, and now he has died.”
- Use clear words such as ‘he has died’ as these are easier for children to understand. Using words like ‘lost’, ‘passed away’ and ‘gone to the stars’ may confuse children.
- Try to avoid using the phrase “Grandad had gone to sleep, but won’t ever wake up” as this can scare children and worry them about sleeping and not waking up themselves.
- Allow for time together to comfort them, support them and for any questions they may ask.
- Answer questions honestly, but keep explanations short, clear and appropriate for their age and understanding. It is absolutely fine to say you don’t know the answer to a question, but that you will come back to them if you find an answer.
- You may need to repeat the information, especially when talking with younger children.
- It is ok to show your emotions and to explain that you are sad because the person has died, and that it is ok to be sad sometimes and happy sometimes when someone dies.
Children and young people tend to show their feelings with behaviours rather than words. Reactions will vary greatly as children start to process the information in different ways at different ages. Further guidance on how to spot the signs that a child is struggling to come to terms with their grief can be found in the links at the bottom of this blog.
Below are some activities you may find helpful to help your child cope with loss at this time of year:
- Continue favourite family traditions or start a new one. Continuing a tradition a loved one enjoyed at this time of year can, for some, be a comforting reminder. For others, starting a new tradition that brings the rest of the family together at a difficult time can be hugely healing.
- Understand that everyone will cope differently. At this time of year in particular, when family get together, it is important to remember that some children may want more time on their own whilst others may feel more of a need for the physical presence of loved ones. Neither is right or wrong.
- Create a Memory Box. Find a box (or another container) from around the house and have them decorate it. Then suggest that they fill it with objects that give them good memories of the person who has died. This could be drawings, cards, photos, or a special present they received from the deceased.
- Write a Letter to Your Person. If the child feels as though they still have more to say to the person who has died, they could always write that person a letter. This could then be placed in their memory box or you could ask your funeral director if they are able to place it with the deceased person before the funeral has taken place.
- Write a Poem Based on Their Name. Ask the child to spell out the name of the person who has died. Using the letters of their name, they can then write an acrostic poem with words that remind them of that person. For example:
Great at hugs
Ready to listen
Makes me smile
Always happy to see me
- Make a Memory Bracelet – For this activity, you could take your child to a craft store and let them pick out beads that they’d like to use to represent their loved one. Once you’re back at home, get some string, and help them put their bracelet together. It will be something they can wear whenever they’re missing their person.
- Share a book together. There are so many wonderful children’s books that highlight the topic of grief for children. These are often portrayed in child-friendly ways which makes opening up a conversation about grief and loss so much easier. It can also be a helpful way for children to connect with their own emotions and to ask questions.
- Collect photos. This can be a wonderful activity to help children remember the good and happy times they had with their loved one. It can help them to work through the memories and open up discussions that can be very healing for their feelings of grief and loss.
- Simple Colouring and Drawing. As simple as it sounds, pictures can be expressions of a child’s thoughts (even when they lack the words to describe their feelings.) Colouring or just drawing may help calm a child and process their feelings.
If you would like further information, support and guidance, the following links may be helpful:
Winston’s Wish has a great selection of resources, books, journals and memory boxes: https://shop.winstonswish.org/
They also have some fantastic downloadable activity ideas to help grieving children and young people explore and express their feelings and emotions:
Child Bereavement UK have lots of resources, books and question cards: https://www.childbereavementuk.org/pages/shop/department/when-child-grieve
They also share some very helpful information about how to spot the signs that your child is struggling with feelings of grief:
Oscars Wish Foundation has a lovely selection of grief support boxes for different ages, memory bears and books:
If you’re worried about your child’s reaction or behaviour, get in touch with your GP. You can also seek help from online support groups and charities, such as:
Child Bereavement UK – https://www.childbereavementuk.org/
Winston’s Wish – https://www.winstonswish.org/helpline/