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Supporting bereaved families

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Although, hopefully, it doesn’t happen that often, as parent and toddler group leaders it’s important that we know how to respond if one of the families we’re in contact with suffers a close bereavement.

The death of a mum, dad, child, sibling or other close relative inevitably affects the lives of both the surviving children and parents deeply. On top of the feelings of heartache and loss there are also all the practical issues that result from having to rebuild a family without the presence of a loved one.

People don’t ‘get over’ their loss quickly, and sometimes their bereavement journey becomes harder several months after the death. They can start to feel the pain of their loss even more when all the administrative issues have been dealt with and the shock and numbness has worn off. Unfortunately, that can be the time when support from friends and family begins to lessen. It’s important to recognize that the bereavement journey can be long and painful, so just ‘being there’ for bereaved families is vital, however long it takes.

Although we will not be able to fully enter into the grief of a bereaved parent or child there is much we can do to support them and their family both at the time the death and afterwards. Here are a few ideas:

  • Acknowledge what has happened. Many people avoid talking to bereaved people because they don’t know what to say. There’s sometimes no need for words – an “I’m so sorry” and a big hug can speak volumes about how much you care.
  • Help others in the group to understand what has happened and talk to the bereaved family as well.
  • Recognise that the whole family will be on a roller-coaster ride both emotionally and in terms of the practical outcomes of the death. Be aware that these will last for a long time and resolve to ‘be there’ for as long as it takes.
  • Don’t be surprised by anything bereaved children do or say. They can jump in and out of grief, sometimes crying a lot and then the next minute joining happily in all the games. They can also be remarkably frank and matter of fact about the death.
  • Allow the children to talk about what has happened but don’t be surprised if other children don’t seem to take much notice – they haven’t developed their compassionate responses yet.
  • Very young children don’t have the verbal skills to express their emotions, so tend to act them out or sometimes to draw them. There may be more tantrums, tears or moments of withdrawal – if so, give them lots of hugs and ‘tlc’.
  • Although your main concern will be the bereaved child, don’t forget that the parent(s) will be grieving as well. Bereavement can impact family dynamics considerably.
  • If you become really concerned about the child’s wellbeing, talk to the parent(s) and perhaps let them know about the support that is available.
  • If you want to find out more about bereavement support and the help that Care for the Family can give, look at our bereavement webpages. You’ll find lots of information, resources, articles and links to bereavement support organisations (including those that support bereaved children).You’ll also find information about our Bereaved Parent Support initiative (for parents whose child has died) and about our Widowed Young Support initiative (for people whose partner has died when under the age of 50). If you think that any of the information might be appropriate, do pass it on to parents or you are in contact with.