Children and bereavement: Families share their stories

This week I wrote a piece for Parentdish about how to help bereaved children grieve.

It wasn't an easy piece to pitch, write or see published. It gives a glimpse into how we are all facing up to things in the hope of helping others.

I once worked on a project involving research on how to support bereaved children.

As it's not online, I thought I would rewrite and edit it, as well as adding in some bloggers' wisdom.

This is a much longer version of some of the information included in the Parentdish piece.

Carrying grief with you

Of course, just like adults, no two children are the same when it comes to how they handle  bereavement.
I discovered that experts - and by that I mean bereaved people, will tell you that you don't 'get over' grief, you carry it with you and learn to live with it, day by day.
And while for adults and children alike that acceptance takes time, for children it also takes longer to understand what has happened.

Their understanding, reaction and on-going grief will also be further influenced by their age.
Joanne Mallon, also then from Parentdish, wrote this excellent post about how to talk to your children about death after Michael Jackson died. It's a great starting point and I'd strongly agree that Michael Rosen's Sad Book is a must-read for any child who has lost someone dear.

Stories of loss
Joanne's own brother died when she was nine.

I asked her how she remembered him.

She said: "My son's middle name is Jonathan. He looks very like him, but we have to remember that Isaac is his own person. I often talk to my children about Jonathan, what he was like - partly to remember him and also to give them some insight into disability.

"They talk about him - and their other relatives who've died - as angels, all together. My daughter writes little letters and prayers to him and we have a photo of me and Jonathan in the living room. I only go to his grave very rarely - his grave is in a cemetery in Belfast (right next to those of the IRA hunger strikers). I find graves very depressing. "

Karen, whose dad died when she was nine, said: "For children,  death is understood in terms of what it means to them, so if someone they love has died, it means they won’t see that person again and that makes them sad.

"It’s what made me cry when mum broke the news, and when I cried over the next few weeks and months it was always accompanied by the phrase ‘I miss Daddy’.

“I don’t think children are scared by death at all, certainly not in my experience.

"In fact I’m still not scared by death and I think that’s because it’s been openly talked about and experienced in my family – my mum’s sister died within a year of my dad, and my dad’s father too.

“We can forget how literal children are. As adults we understand implied meaning, but children may not always –

"Daddy’s gone away is a really unhelpful way of saying ‘Daddy’s dead’.
“I always joked that the highlights of not having a dad was that I never had to run my boyfriends past him, but in truth I so desperately wish I had had a dad."

A Mum Shaped Hole

You may know my lovely friend Laura from her blog Are We nearly There Yet Mummy.
But have you ever read what she calls her 'more serious' blog, A Mum Shaped Hole?
She says: “My mum died when I was nine, this is me trying to make sense of that. I am now 30 and I still struggle without her. The only way I can describe it is like having A Mum Shaped Hole in my life.”

Here’s an extract from a post, about how Laura's mum would treasure her grandchildren.

Would she think they look like me?
Would she admire my handsome boy all snails, scooters and bold adventure?
Would she smile at my beautiful girl all bossy and hands on hips smelling of apples and willful charm?
Would her heart melt when they called her name?
Would she be my shoulder to cry on when life is tough?
Would we laugh so hard that tears would fall?
I wish they had known her, and I for longer
I wish she was here
I miss my mum.

Laura told me: "I feel regret that my grief has affected my life in so many ways. Immediately afterwards was strange. Although she had been ill for two years I had no idea she was going to die. Although, subconsciously, maybe I did - as I remember being told off for humming the Funeral March one day.

"From my dad and sister's point of view it was a huge relief that Mum's suffering had ended. I come from a family where we laugh a lot and don't really discuss feelings openly and I think although I was encouraged to grieve, I was also encouraged to think about the good times.

"I now realise that I use humour as a coping mechanism and don't face things properly. The family motto is 'laugh in the face of adversity'!

"Even growing up I can remember getting cold sweats if the subject of mums came up and would rather avoid the conversation than talk about it and have people feeling sorry for me.

"It's only now that I can openly discuss my Mum and rather than feel embarrassed, feel proud of her.
"I became very clingy towards my dad and just wanted to be with him all the time.

"Since having my own children,  my relationship with my grief has changed. Because I didn't have many memories of my mum as a child I felt a bit detached from her.

"But when I had the children and experienced the love that she too must have felt I felt more of a connection.

"I had a long period where I felt so incredibly sad and I still feel panic sometimes when I think that one day something may happen to me and my children will be left without a mother. "

Insomniac Mummy also wrote hauntingly of the death of her mother, who died 30 years ago. To this day, she says, she doesn't know what happened to her ashes or if she has a memorial stone. Look at the comments too, to see not only how bloggers can rally round each other, but also how many stories of loss are yet to be shared.

Then, Insomniac Mummy wrote about her lovely Grandma. 
Englishmum often remembers her friend C and how proud her daughter would now make her.

Single Parent Dad

Another blogger writing movingly about his own experience of grief and that of his adorable son Max, is  Ian at Single Parent Dad.
Ian's wife Samantha died suddenly in 2005, when Max was a baby.

In a recent post about 'grief triggers' Ian says:
My boy understands why too, I do not like keeping things from him, he deserves the truth, however hard it is.

But last week was the first time it upset him.

I explained in the morning, what was ‘significant’ about the day, and while that was not a grief trigger for me, it certainly was for the boy.

While heartbreaking to witness, I was also immensely proud of my son. Proud because he had moved to such a level, gaining a better understanding of his loss, and able to show his emotion for it.

There was plenty of reassurance and cuddling, and we spoke about his mom, and how it was now. While she has physically gone, she will always be part of him, and gave him the best possible start in the world.

Is honesty the best policy when talking to children about bereavement?

Here’s what Cruse says:
In general, honesty is the best policy. However, there are also other considerations. When we talk to children about death we need to speak in language that they can understand. Also for some children we may let them know something about the death and share more information later when they are able to take it in.
“When we explain to a child about a death we may need to repeat what we say. We also need to be able to answer their questions.

"Also all family members need to be saying the same thing so the child does not become confused. It is also a good idea to let the child’s school know what you have said to the child.”

Bereavement counsellor Dodie Graves, from Wolverhampton's Compton Hospice, adds: “Because children can’t always express their emotions easily, understanding how they are dealing with grief can be difficult. It is common for children to want to be strong for their family, and it can be difficult for them to know who to turn to when they need support.

“Families’ bereavement support workers talk to children one-to- one, and with their families, to help them work together through their shared grief.

“They use puppets, games and art to help children express their feelings, and special memory jars and memory boxes to remember the person they’ve lost.

“They can also support families in learning how to communicate better together.”
Winston’s Wish ( has in-depth guidance for anyone wanting to help a bereaved child.

A gradual understanding

Parenting expert Sue Atkins stresses that it’s important to remember that children will not behave like adults.
It sounds obvious, but can be overlooked in these sad circumstances.
She says: “Children's understanding of death comes gradually.”

Sue's article on bereavement discusses how children of different ages may understand about death and grieve.
She says that from about nine years, most children will have an adult view of death, although this will depend on their development and maturity and their past experiences of death.

The best way of understanding what children think and feel about death is to listen carefully and to talk gently with them and be guided by them.

Many parents feel that childhood is a time free from difficulties and challenging events but in reality this just isn’t the case- but it’s how you handle the challenges that makes your children grow up well balanced, resilient and strong -able to handle the blows life deals them.

Sue adds: “It’s perfectly natural to cry in front of your children - if you explain what you are feeling."

What children going through loss need:
• Information
• Companionship
• Time to express their emotions
• Time to remember.
I’m very grateful to Sue for allowing me to use this information. She's a mum to two teenagers and a former deputy head teacher. She's also the author of Raising Happy Children for Dummies. Find out more at

Where to find help:

Winston's Wish Helpline: 0845 203 0405 (Mon-Fri 9-5pm) Childhood Bereavement Network Tel: 0115 911 8070 Child Bereavement Trust
Tel: 01494 446648 (General)
0845 357 1000 (Information/support line)

Helpline: 0844 477 9400
Road for you – part of Cruse helping young people:

Compassionate Friends
Helpline: 0845 123 2304

Books you may find helpful

*If you would like to share a story of bereavement or offer any advice to families facing the darkest of times, please do leave a comment and let us know any links to posts you think may be helpful.

* A version of this post was published on an earlier blog.

* Some of the comments with useful information, that were originally added, will also appear under this post.   


  1. One of our most visited books is No Matter What – Debi Glori
    “Small look at the stars – how they shine and glow, but some of those stars died a long time ago.
    Still they shine in the evening skies, Love, like starlight never dies”

    My boys were 5 and 6 when Mum dies and this book is still one of our most read. I wrote about helping them here

    If you don't mind I will change my link from your old blog to this one.

    1. Hi Jen thank you so much for adding details of that book, so inspired to read it has helped you all. Please do link away, I want people to be able to find this information in case it is helpful to them.

  2. Although my boy's mum dies five and a hlaf years ago, and my blog is really about life after that, I rarely write about it. At home his mum is quite openly spoken about whenever she would logically be a part of the conversation...and he has a photo of her beside his bed. Your piece is really interesting to read. Thanks

  3. Wow, what a great feature Linda! Actually had to stop at one point as I was getting very teary. Well done for making something out of this even thought the other project folded. It's a great read - and a useful one - and I'm really glad I could help.

  4. Linda, thank you so much for tackling this very difficult topic with so much sensitivity and information. You've really collated a lot here! For very young children, they don't understand death. It's still important to be honest, but it can be disconcerting how little they miss the person who has died. They may not ask for the person, and then suddenly, something brings back a memory and they will ask out of the blue, which may of course throw the adult back on the path of grief. I've always tried to explain to my daughter. She repeats the words but it's clear she has no concept of death and dying. Memory books are a great way to keep memories alive, to keep talking about the person who died. It can be hard, especially at the beginning, but memories are all that's left so I find it's important to encourage them. I found it interesting that even toddlers have long memories. When we visited a place for the first time, 8 months or so after our last visit with the person who had since died, my daughter kept asking for him, something she doesn't normally do. After all this time, something still triggered her memory. So visiting places where time together was spent is a good idea and maybe keep those memories alive in the very young child.

  5. Linda, as someone who lost both of my parents within three months of each other when I was just six years of age, I applaud you on tackling this subject matter with care and compassion. I like how you have suggested that it is the bereaved themselves who are experts on bereavement, since nobody who hasn't been bereaved of a parent, and particularly so in childhood, can really understand how much it affects the rest of one's life. Even worse when you get thrust into an unloving, hostile environment, as I was. I thought I could cope, until I lost someone very dear to me in June - someone who got me through my childhood and yet who, because of his high profile status, is deemed by some as unworthy of my grief. Yet losing him was even worse, since this time, I am not six years old and I know that he is not coming back. I am seeing CRUSE right now and they are excellent, but although I am able to talk through my tears about my parents, I feel unable to bring up the name of the person I am grieving for now, who, in the absence of parents, became my joy, hope and reason d'etre. Nothing can bring back those we love and there are many like me, who grieve in silence and despair.

  6. There's another great charity that helped us, and that sent a 'Grief Relief Kit' for Harvey. They're called Grief Encounter ( and are well worth a look. Also a good book is It's been 2 and a half years for Harvey now, and he's made me proud every single day. He's connecting to Jo through music too (she was a music teacher) and is writing songs about and for her.

  7. Hi Linda, One of our writers wrote about this very subject earlier in the year. Partly prompted by the very public profile of Jade Goody's doomed battle with cancer. Something that brought death into everyone's living room. Whether they liked it or not. This includes a book that they found particularly helpful too. Hope it's of interest x

  8. Linda ~ I just wanted to say thank you for a beautifully sensitive and well-written post. My utmost respect too goes to those who have contributed their experiences.

  9. If you are a parent with a terminal illness, pre-emptive grief can be difficult to handle. It is difficult to console a child when it's you that is the problem and you can't honestly say its going to be alright. You see your child struggling at school because of emotional breakdowns and you worry you might blight their future by dying in the middle of their exams. Lots of official "help" available but sometimes that is resented by child and becomes part of the problem.

  10. Could've sworn I commented earlier I'm losing it.... Thanks for including my posts. If by putting together this information you can help just one person then it is worthwhile. x

  11. OMG I'm crying. This post is brilliant and will help so many people. Linda, you are an angel.

  12. What a moving article, Linda. I'm humbled that you've added my small experience into the mix

  13. This is an incredibly moving and useful post, thank you to all the writers for sharing their experiences. Bereavement can have such an effect on the lives of those left behind. It has taken me more than 20 years to come to terms with the death of my father - I wasn't a child when he died, but the impact of his death had a devastating effect on one of my closest relatives. It's something I've touched on briefly in my blog and that I might write about someday.

  14. It's about a million years since you posted this, and thank you for doing so. My 6 children aged 4-20 lost their 16yo sister suddenly in August 2014, and around 9 months later I wrote about how they coped, and how we helped them cope to that point. It is still, and always will be, ongoing xx