Helping children exit the deep well of traumatic bereavement

10 May 2021, 5:00

When life feels scary for children, teachers are particularly well placed to notice and offer ways to cope with the pain of loss, writes Beck Ferrari  

 School staff provide daily support to children and young people who are facing tough times. Sadly, the death of someone significant in a pupil’s life is likely to be one of those times.  

Even when you are experienced in providing such support, you can find yourself more worried about a child or young person than usual. This could be because you notice that child appears to be persistently struggling with their learning, with intense emotions, their friendships, or their ability to manage their behaviour. Following a death in a child’s life, such difficulties suggest they may be experiencing a traumatic bereavement.  

In a traumatic bereavement, the trauma gets in the way of the typical process of grieving. It blocks a child’s ability to ‘make sense’ of the death and adjust to their loss. This can happen to children and young people in any circumstance and at any age. 

We are all aware how much the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the lives of children and young people. For some, this includes situations where a death has arisen in a way that is either sudden or unexpected (without the chance to say goodbye), or where the ability to follow important beliefs and cultural practices may have been prevented. Layered on to this can be feelings of guilt about potentially having brought the virus into the home. These factors may increase the likelihood of what we call a traumatic bereavement. 

 Traumatic bereavement is much harder for the child to step out of

In a more typical bereavement, children and young people dip in and out of their grief as if stepping in and out of puddles. Traumatic bereavement, however, is experienced more like being in a deep well, and is much harder for the child to step out of. 

The first step is ensuring that we identify and notice children or young people who may be struggling in this way. You will know the pupil from before the bereavement, so will be well placed to notice how much of an impact the death is having – and whether things are getting easier, or worse.  

For such children, whose lives feel unsafe, keeping a positive relationship going is vital. The reality is that the time pressures teachers face can make this feel hard. But even a simple “good to see you today” or “thanks for making a start on your work” helps a pupil feel noticed and their efforts acknowledged. 

Sharing your concerns with other teachers and helping as a broader teaching team to ensure that there is someone the young person can speak to are important next steps. A trusted adult with regular time to listen is key. Even when they find it hard to talk about their grief, the adult can show they are there for them. This can be really significant when a young person feels like giving up.   

Careful monitoring can help you build a clearer picture to aid decision making about whether specialist help might be needed. Ongoing engagement with parents or carers at home will also help you to understand how the child is managing outside school.  

Do remember that you will also need support, and that this is an important part of the school’s response. You are not alone in this situation, and nor is your school. We’ve worked hard to ensure that’s the case.  

The UK Trauma Council, in collaboration with leading bereavement charities Child Bereavement UK, Winston’s Wish and the Child Bereavement Network, is offering a new portfolio of resources for schools and colleges. Developed and tested with education professionals and those with lived experience, it features a comprehensive written guide to traumatic bereavement, with supporting tools including videos and an animation.  

School staff play a crucial role in addressing the impact of the pandemic on the wellbeing of children and young people. When life feels scary and uncertain for children, they need adults to show they still believe in them and to help hold the hope for them. Traumatic bereavement is a deep well, but teachers have a very long reach.


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