Child Bereavement Service Belfast

Frequently asked questions

Q. My partner has died and I have no idea how I will tell my three children, 5, 8 and 10 that their daddy is dead. Any advice?
A. Children are not born with an automatic understanding of death. It is important that you help your children understand the following concepts and this is best done by giving them clear, honest information on a frequent basis. At times children can appear very accepting of bereavement, while later they may become very distressed. This can be confusing for adults and it is important that children are given the opportunity to display their feelings of grief in their own time. Explaining a death to a child can be a very difficult and painful task but children can manage feelings of pain and loss with the help of a concerned adult. You may find it helps to have someone with you when you tell them about their daddy’s death.

Message drawn by a child, the bestest daddy in the world, image copyright of Barnardo's Image Library

Consider the following:-

  • Use the word “death” or “dead” not “gone to sleep” or “gone to a better place” as these can cause confusion and anxiety.
  • Young children need to be told repeatedly that when someone dies they never come back; the dead person doesn’t eat, sleep or feel any pain.
  • It is important that the cause of death is explained to the children simply and in a language they understand so that they don’t blame themselves.
  • It is important that a child understands that everyone dies at some time but most people don’t die until they are older.
  • Children need to be told that nothing we think, or say can cause death, it was not their fault.

Children will see saw in and out of their grief as they cannot sustain emotional pain for long periods, this can be distressing and upsetting to adults and can mislead you into thinking they are coping better than he or she really is.

Q. I’m worried about my son since his dad died. He is 14 years old and is really moody. I’m not sure what is normal teenage behaviour and what is due to his grief. How do I know if he needs help?

Image drawn by a child, image copyright of Barnardo's Image Library

A. Most children and young people come to terms with the death of someone important to them through time when they have supportive trusted adults in their lives. Most children therefore do not need therapeutic individual work. Teenagers are vulnerable after bereavement as they try to be independent and solve problems themselves and find it difficult to ask for help and support from adults. Your son may not be able to talk to you simply because teenagers find it hard to talk to their parents but it is important that there is someone in his life that he has the opportunity to talk to if he needs to e.g. an uncle, cousin, teacher, youth leader. School is important for continuity and routine but teachers need to be made aware of his bereavement, and support offered if he has difficulty with work or concentrating in class.

It is important that your son does not feel that he has to be the ‘man of the house’ now and become overburdened with adult responsibilities. Be open and talk through any life changes that affect him e.g. sale of family car/house. Things to look out for are difficulty sleeping, changing in eating habits, any risk taking behaviours e.g. drinking. If you are concerned about his mood or any comments he makes which might suggest he is depressed, it is important that you take him to see his GP as soon as possible.

Q. My husband died by suicide, he overdosed. I don’t know how to tell my three children that he took his own life?
A. It can be particularly difficult when there is a death from suicide. However, it is important that children and young people are told the truth in simple language that they can understand. It has been our experience that many adults wish to protect children  and so don’t tell them the truth, however, children often overhear or are told details from their friends. Children need to be informed about the death by someone they have a close relationship with. You may wish to tell the child the details about the death in stages. It is important that their questions are answered honestly but all the details may be told over a period of time. Children can cope with explanations that are geared to their level of understanding, however they find it very difficult if they are told lies.

Children and young people need to be reminded that situations can always be sorted out. It is important that if they have fears or worries they need to talk about it. Often individuals take their own life, either on impulse or because they think their loved ones would be better off without them. It is important to explore these issues with children and help them identify key people in their lives who they can talk to.

Question for school teachers:

Q. How do we best support a pupil who is bereaved?

A. It is important to acknowledge the bereavement with the child. Children appreciate a visit to the family home by a form teacher/class teacher as this also facilitates conversation with the child regarding what they wants their class mates to know and how to support the child in returning to school. If a child doesn’t want any public acknowledgement of their bereavement within class, it is still important to quietly welcome the child back to school, to offer support or contact with a named teacher if they need to talk to someone or needs time out of class.

Acknowledge that they may have difficulties in concentrating or with school work and not to be afraid to ask for help. Be aware of the child’s peers and how they are coping; some bereaved children find it hard to socialise and others are more vulnerable to bullying. A bereaved child’s peer group may also need support from teaching staff in supporting that young person.  

Q. I’m really worried about my children, since their mum died one minute they are in tears and then they are asking me about going out to play with their friends. There is no consistency with them, what am I doing wrong?

Child sitting on the floor playing with toys, image copyright of Barnardo's Image Library

A. Children experience the same feelings as adults after someone significant to them dies. They feel shock, denial, anger and guilt. Children however are unable to sustain emotional pain for a long time and so they express their feelings differently to adults and will see-saw in and out of their grief. For example, one minute they may appear very sad and the next excited about Christmas or a birthday. This is normal. Children cope differently and need to be allowed to enjoy fun and happy times in the midst of their sadness. A child who appears happy at times is not necessarily coping better than a child who appears more sad.

Q. My daughter is afraid to go to sleep at night since her grandpa died. She has been sleeping in bed with me most nights since. I know this can’t go on as she often wakes me up every night and seems scared. What can I do?
A. It is important when explaining a death to a child that you use the word ‘death’ and ‘dead’ rather than ‘gone to a better place’ or ‘gone to sleep’. What messages did your daughter get about how he died? Perhaps she thinks of her grandpa as being asleep and this is causing her anxiety that if she sleeps she might never wake up or when she wakens in the night she is terrified to see her parent sleeping and has to waken you to check you are still alive. Explain once again to your daughter what caused her grandpa to die and that you do not sleep, drink, eat or feel any pain when you are dead. You may like to try some relaxation techniques with her at bedtime. Your daughter’s secure world has been shaken by this bereavement and it is not unusual for a child to want to keep the adults important to them very close. Talk with her about her dreams, answer her questions and reassure her as much as you can.

Q. My neighbour died. I’m not sure how best to convey my sympathy to her children aged 12 and 15 years as I didn’t really know the family, any advice?
A. It is important to acknowledge with children the death of their parent. This can be done simply by expressing your sorrow for their loss when you see them, calling at the house or sending a card. Adults often ask after the bereaved spouse but forgets to ask the children how they are feeling. Children also appreciate cards and flowers addressed to them personally. The most important thing is don’t avoid the children, don’t cross the street if you see them coming, be yourself with them and let them know you are available if they need help, e.g. somewhere to wait after school until dad gets home if they don’t want to be on their own.

Barnardo’s Child Bereavement Service Helpline is accessible on 028 9066 8333 to give advice to anyone concerned about a bereaved child or young person.