A child’s grief: you have to acknowledge that something’s happened

Courtesy of TheGuardian.com | By Anne Harris | Originally Published 11.17.2017 | Posted 01.03.2018

As part of children’s grief awareness week, the staff who support families caring for terminally ill children on the need to be honest and consistent

father whose daughter had died, once told me his grief was like a snow globe. Life slowly resumed – like the snow resettling after it had been shaken – and only he knew that nothing was where it had been before.

Anyone who works with grieving children will know this is particularly true for them, too. I’ve been doing so for more than 30 years. I was a nurse and then a social worker before joining the Rainbow Trust children’s charity 11 years ago. We support whole families caring for a life-threatened or terminally ill child. Their siblings are a vital focus for us.

I know that working with grieving children is hugely rewarding but it is also very emotionally draining. Despite years of training, you can’t help but give yourself entirely to children who are dealing with the deepest sense of loss. In doing so, you often relive your own experiences of grief, which can be a hard burden to carry.

At Rainbow Trust, our family support workers have backgrounds in social care, childcare, early years, neonatal and nursing, to name a few. Their previous experience is wide ranging but they have one vital thing in common – they all share the ability to sit with children in their pain.

How do they do this? In short, there are six key elements to supporting a grieving child:

  • Listen to what the child is saying (and not saying)
  • Work with the family to agree what they want shared and openly discussed (what we call their family script)
  • Be aware that children and adults grieve differently. Children can appear to be back to normal even when they are still hurting
  • Be honest. If you don’t know, say so
  • Be consistent
  • Look after yourself and make sure you have access to good support

This can all be easier said than done.

Naturally, parents want to protect their children. When a child is seriously ill, families often instinctively want to try and hide the truth from their other children for as long as possible. But in our experience, childhood grief can start long before a death. Keeping children involved and informed from early on can help this process. Professionals can assist parents with finding the right words to be as open and honest as possible.

Children are intuitive, and they will create their own explanation if they aren’t told what is happening. Whispered conversations and awkward silences will only encourage them to make up their own vivid truths. I worked with one young boy who thought it was his fault his new baby sister was born prematurely – he’d wished for her to arrive early because he was so excited to be a big brother.

Honesty is all the more important if a sibling dies. No euphemisms, no fabricated stories and no words that can be misunderstood. Like the boy from Bristol misheard “heaven” for “Devon” and couldn’t understand why he couldn’t visit his sister there. Or the girl who was told her brother had “gone to sleep” and became terrified of bedtime.

All children cope with death in their own way. Feeling grief is natural. We shouldn’t suddenly think that every grieving child needs marching to a counsellor’s office. Some may need additional support, but anyone working with bereaved children can help. At a time when life feels different and frightening, talking to a professional can help them feel safe, secure and listened to.

But my most simple advice would be this: acknowledge the child’s grief. This can be by simply saying: “I’m sorry this has happened”. In those few words you are telling them that you know things have changed, that their world is different now and that their snow globe is no longer the same.


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