Support for grieving children during the pandemic

Alison Penny, Director of the Childhood Bereavement Network, looks ahead to Children’s Grief Awareness Week (19 to 26 Nov) and considers the particular challenges apparent in 2020.

It’s a sad fact, but in this year of Covid-19 more schools than ever have been called upon to support grieving pupils. As well as those bereaved by the coronavirus itself, many children have experienced the death of someone they love from other causes, including cancer, sudden death or suicide. Sadly, the country has experienced more overall deaths than usual this year, and this means that more children have been bereaved.

Since March, physical distancing measures have affected all bereavements. Many children and young people have been unable to spend time with or say goodbye in person to a dying loved one, whether in hospital, hospice, care home or a different household. The Childhood Bereavement Network (CBN) has produced guidance to help families stay connected to someone who is so ill they might die, even at a distance.

Restrictions on the numbers attending funerals also mean that many children and young people have been unable to share in these important rituals of shared grief.

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Usually, spending time with family and friends and supporting one another can help children and young people come to terms with the death of someone close, but it is harder to do this at a distance. To overcome this, CBN has shared suggestions to help young people reach out for support from parents and friends.

For those that need more support than their family and friends can provide, local child bereavement services provide a range of services. Typically, these include one-to-one support or counselling, or work with the whole family together. Many offer peer support groups where young people who have been bereaved meet with one another, helping each realise they are not alone and build their strength and confidence. However, infection control measures mean that most services have had to radically adapt the way they provide support, often moving their work online

As well as pupils who have been bereaved themselves, children and young people have been exposed to stories in the media and community conversations about dying and death this year at levels that are unprecedented in recent times.

Inevitably these experiences and conversations come in through the school gates. This year has brought a new urgency to providing good support to grieving pupils, and providing opportunities to learn about coping with bereavement.

Many senior leadership teams within schools have worked hard to make sure their staff are well prepared to acknowledge pupils’ grief, respond to their needs and find extra support when it is needed. The Department for Education’s Wellbeing for Education Return programme, which aims to lessen the impact of the pandemic on the mental health and wellbeing of staff and pupils, directly addresses topics of loss and bereavement, and should be available in every area.

Children’s Grief Awareness Week runs 19-26th November, coordinated by the Childhood Bereavement Network, Grief Encounter and the Life Matters Taskforce partners. It is an ideal opportunity for schools to consider their approach to supporting pupils. The Childhood Bereavement Network’s Growing in Grief Awareness audit tool provides a free framework for early years settings, schools and colleges to think through what support is already in place, and what more might be needed. The audit can be used to develop a full action plan, which might involve the school setting up peer support groups, arranging twilight training sessions with their local child bereavement service, or accessing e-learning from Winston’s Wish or webinars from Child Bereavement UK.

This year, the theme for Children’s Grief Awareness Week is #SayTheWords, and aims to tackle the isolation that so many bereaved children, young people and their families can face. Even before the pandemic, bereaved pupils said they felt lonely and ‘different’ as a result of their bereavement. Often, their grief can undermine friendships and other important relationships in their lives.

This year, physical distancing measures have made it even harder for friends and families to support one another, and for child bereavement services to provide the support as they usually would. So we’re encouraging bereaved children, and families to #SayTheWords to talk about their grief and to reach out for support.

We’re also inviting schools to #SayTheWords, to acknowledge pupils’ grief, make time to have a conversation and bravely tackle the taboos that still exist about talking about these topics. Schools must be part of the network of support around grieving pupils, helping them find hope for their future at a time of personal and national loss.

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