Bereavement – how parents can help children cope positively with the grieving process by Sue Atkins, parenting expert and author

Here is a great article on how to help children cope with the death of parent from our London Mums archive (2009). A recent scenario triggered the re-posting of this very useful article exclusively written by the best parenting expert in the UK and TV star Sue Atkins.

Beginning the grieving process


For many children their first real experience with loss happens when a pet dies. There are many ways you can tell your child that a pet has died from using a soothing voice or finding a comfortable and familiar place to tell them, but the most important thing is to be honest. Trying to protect them with vague and inaccurate explanations can create more anxiety, confusion and mistrust. When a well loved pet dies, children need consolation, love, support and affection more than complicated medical explanations. They need to have their feelings understood and validated. There is no best way for children to mourn their pets, but they need to be given time to remember. Mourning a pet has to be done in a child’s own way and it could help to talk about the animal with family and friends or even at school.

There is no such thing as a perfect parent so just be a real one.

When a person dies it is a distressing event to which people react differently. Some may be shocked, some numb, whilst others get upset and tearful. “How you, as a parent, handle death and grief is a blueprint for how your children handle death and grief in their emotional lives,” advises parent coach and author, Sue Atkins, of Positive Parents Confident Kids. “As a parent you are a real-life role model for your children.”

Coping with your own feelings can be especially difficult when you are trying to support your children too. You may be feeling shocked, sad, angry, guilty, anxious, relieved, lonely, orphaned, irritable or many other feelings. It may be hard for you to do the “normal” things and keep to the same routines as your whole perspective changes.

It helps to talk – to family, friends or neutral people who have experienced the same situation so that you offload your grief to the appropriate people – not your children. Parents often feel that the needs of their children come first but you also need to make time for yourself – because then you can come from a place of stability for your kids.

Parents often try to protect their children by not talking about illness or death. This is, of course, understandable as not everyone is comfortable talking about their emotions or knows what to say. However, Sue Atkins believes that: “children are sensitive, intelligent people who need to be listened to and asked how they feel. They have their own personal unique relationship with the person who has died and need to be allowed to express their grief.”

How bereavement affects children

Children handle death and loss in a number of different ways, as do adults, and it is important to understand that children of differing ages react in different ways, and not always as an adult may react or behave. Children’s understanding of death comes gradually:

Under five years: children of this age have little abstract sense of time or distance, so final and forever means very little to them; dead means less alive; death is a sleep or a journey; death and life are interchangeable.

From five to eight years: death is a frightening person; death is final; death is often seen as the end result of violence and aggression and often there’s an intense interest in the rituals surrounding death.

From around nine years onwards: children understand that death is the end of bodily life, death is inevitable, final and happens to everyone eventually.

From around nine years of age most children will have an adult view of death although this will depend on their development, maturity and past experiences of death. “The best way of understanding what children think and feel about death is to listen carefully, 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. It is how the parent handles the challenges that makes their children grow up well balanced, resilient and strong, able to handle the blows life deals them.

“Don’t be afraid to be completely natural in your own grief – don’t hide it away from your children. Grief is a natural emotion. Sadness is part of life and by talking it through together your child can experience the healing process first hand,” advises Sue Atkins.

Organisations to help:

Winston’s Wish – The Clara Burgess Centre, Bayshill Road, Cheltenham GL51 3WH – Tel: 01242 515157 – Helpline: 0845 203 0405 (Mon-Fri 9-5pm) – Website: www.winstonswish.org.uk

Childline – Freepost NATN1111, London E1 6BR – Tel: 020 7239 1000; 0800 1111 (24-hour helpline) – Website: www.childline.org.uk

Childhood Bereavement Network – Tel: 0115 911 8070 – Website: www.ncb.org.uk/cbn

Child Bereavement Charity – Tel: 01494 446648 (general inquiries); 0845 357 1000 (information and support line) – Website: www.childbereavement.org.uk

OUR EXPERT BIOGRAPHY: Sue Atkins is a parent coach and her company is Positive Parents Confident Kids.

She is a former Deputy Head with 22 years teaching experience and is an NLP Master Practitioner and Trainer. As well as being a parent coach, Sue is a parent of two teenagers and the author of numerous books, her latest being “Raising Happy Children for Dummies” one in the famous black and yellow series. Chapter 13 covers helping your child cope with bigger issues, such as death and dying. Positive Parents works with parents to fine-tune their parenting skills via a range of toolkits, such as ‘How to be a brilliant parent’, ‘Positive toddler taming’ and ‘Parenting made easy’, runs one-to-one coaching sessions, workshops and seminars. Sue’s favourite phrase is “because kids don’t come with a handbook”. If you want more info her website is www.positive-parents.com.

Book you can read to your child to explain bereavement in a delicate way: MISSING MUMMY.

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