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Advice for schools on supporting a student coping with a bereavement.

As many as 92% of young people in the UK will experience what they see as a 'significant' bereavement before the age of 16. (1) 

Up to 70% of schools have a bereaved student on role at any one time.(2)

Death is a part of life, and grieving a natural process. However for most people, dealing with a death will be the most psychologically distressing experience they encounter.
A child’s understanding of death goes through several stages before they begin to realise that death is the end of physical life. For a child under five or six years-old, he/she may not understand that death is a permanent thing, and believes that a person will return. For an older child he/she will begin to understand the meaning of ‘forever’. Children and young people will also experience loss in relation to other aspects of their lives, e.g. parental separation or divorce, death of a pet, or loss experienced through a move to a new area due to changed family circumstances.

Each individual will respond in different ways to experiences of loss and bereavement. This can give rise to a range of feelings. The "Five Stages of Grief" (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) (3) can be used as a way of starting to understand what the child or young person may be experiencing.

If a bereaved pupil is unable to express their feelings, they may become withdrawn, insecure and develop low self esteem.

How can staff at school help a bereaved child or young person?

    • Set up opportunities for the child or young person to express their feelings and to ask questions.

    • Encourage them to recognise that these feelings are normal.

    • Recognise that although we cannot make these feelings go away it is important to encourage children to express these feelings, and to find ways to live with them. 

    • Support children to talk about their loss and express their feelings, however do not force them to talk but answer questions simply and honestly.

    • Keep up routines– although it can feel like the most unsettling time, keeping a child’s routine as normal as possible can avoid extra distress. e.g. spending time with their friends.

Useful links

(1) - The impact of bereavement and loss on young people Jane Ribbens McCarthy with Julie Jessop
(2) - (Holland 2001) - Job and Frances guidance on helping schools develop their work with bereavement issues
(3) - (see Elizabeth Kubler Ross)