Children and young people who have experienced the death of someone close to them are facing particular challenges during the pandemic, whether they were bereaved before the outbreak began or more recently. Alison Penny, Director of the Childhood Bereavement Network, describes how COVID-19 has disrupted children’s grief.
Most children have questions and worries about the coronavirus, and how it might affect them or those they love. But for children who have already experienced the death of their mum or dad, brother or sister, or someone else important, these fears are even greater.
Anxiety about whether someone else will die is one of the most common reactions to grief for children, so it’s understandable that the virus is particularly frightening for them. They understand all too well that people can get so ill that they die, which means that some of the more reassuring picture books about the virus just don’t land quite right. A number of Childhood Bereavement Network members have produced tips on talking about coronavirus to this particularly vulnerable group.
For children and young people in families already struggling with grief, the lockdown has been particularly difficult. In families where a parent has died, the surviving parent’s capacity to support their grieving children is one of the most important factors in helping them to come through the experience. This is hard enough for widowed parents at the best of times, but the added pressures of lockdown make this even more challenging. Many local child bereavement services have been sharing activities that grieving families can do together to make this time more bearable.
At a time of national struggle, we have been impressed and moved by the resilience of bereaved children and young people themselves. One young person supported by our member organisation Once Upon a Smile, shared this message for others in a similar situation: ‘Stay strong and safe through this hard time. Remember what you have been through. We got through that together, and we can get through this too’.
Usually, spending time with family and friends and being able to be part of ‘normal’ life can help children come to terms with the death of someone close, but it is harder to do this at a distance. To help, we’ve been sharing suggestions to help young people reach out for support from parents and friends. Similarly, some bereaved young people find the school day brings some relief from memories and unhappiness at home, so schools being shut has closed off this respite. The Childhood Bereavement Network is helping to prepare schools to care for bereaved pupils when they reopen.
Many families mark special occasions in their year such as Mother’s Day, Easter or a birthday by visiting the grave of the person who has died, perhaps to lay flowers. Most cemeteries have been closed during the lockdown, meaning that children and families cannot make these comforting visits. We are relieved that the Government recently announced that cemeteries should be re-opened.
Some children and young people need more support than their family or friends can provide, and are supported by child bereavement services. Typically, these provide one-to-one support or counselling, or work with the whole family together. Many offer peer support groups where young people support one another to realise they are not alone and build their strength and confidence. Knowing what a challenge it can be for families when this support comes to an end, services work hard to prepare children for this moment, helping them to recognise how far they have come and the strengths and resources they can draw on.
Lockdown meant that bereavement support services had to change very abruptly, potentially disrupting the carefully developed relationships with children, young people and families.
We have been working with our members across the UK to help them adapt their services to offer support over the phone or online.However, at the same time as having to find new ways of working, many of these services are facing significant drops in income from community fundraising events and traded activities such as charity shops and training delivery. We are coordinating a letter from organisations providing bereavement support to urge the government to support these crucial services through the £750m emergency support package for the charity sector.
The truth is these services will be needed more than ever in the coming months and years. We are already seeing many more deaths than would be expected at this time of year, so the sheer numbers of bereaved children will be higher. However, the effects of the pandemic go much wider than that. The public health measures needed to reduce the spread of the virus affect all bereavements at the moment, whether the death was caused by coronavirus or other causes. Infection control measures mean that many children and young people cannot spend time with or say goodbye in person to a dying loved one, whether in hospital, hospice, care home or a different household. We have produced guidance to help families stay connected to someone who is so ill they might die, even at a distance.
Very sadly, few children will be able to choose whether to attend the funeral of a loved one during this time. Even if they do attend, the number of mourners is very strictly limited and members of different households are not able to hug and comfort each other. These rituals are an important part of grieving and we are concerned about the children and families who cannot arrange the send-off they would like. Our members are supporting children and families to mark a funeral even if they can’t attend, and plan memorial gatherings for later in the year when we are allowed to get together again. We are working with the funeral industry and government to try and maintain send offs such as these.
Coronavirus has brought fear into most households, and sorrow into many. When the curve flattens and life gets back to something like normal, we must remember and address the legacy of grief for children and young people so deeply affected.
Alison Penny is Director of the Childhood Bereavement Network.