Helping bereaved children at school

I'm working on a feature for a teachers' magazine about how staff can help pupils whose mum or dad has died. The wonderful charity Winston's Wish reports that this happens to 22,000 youngsters every year in the UK - that's one every 22 minutes.

Support available varies from school to school. Heartbreaking stories abound about how a lack of support and understanding can add to children's anguish. One little boy at primary school whose solider dad was killed in Afghanistan was refused permission to take in his medal, because it was feared it would upset his classmates.

At parents' evening I was taken aback when a teacher began to tell me he felt one of my daughters was 'letting herself down' by not concentrating fully in lessons recently. As this came around a month after Neil  died, I had no hesitation in butting in and telling him that as far as I was concerned, her getting out of bed and making it to school was enough of an achievement for me and cough, she most certainly wasn't "letting herself down".

"My mum rocks," she announced later and for once I took a compliment. I felt it was important for me to politely say to the teacher "let me stop you there," and important that my daughters saw me do that too. I'm affected by an inability to concentrate much four months on so the thought of them being reprimanded for that so early on was upsetting.

But overall I have to say that my family's experience of help at school has been hugely positive. Both my daughters' form tutors, their head of year and their headteacher have been very supportive, patient and understanding. 

Their on-going support and readiness to work with others has really made a difference and brought me genuine peace of mind that my daughters continue to find school a lovely place.

But it's such a shame that the support available is so variable at a time of such agony and can have a profound and far-reaching effect on the lives of so many children. Teachers need to be aware of the unique needs of bereaved children and recognise the challenges they may bring to the classroom, learning about how best to respond to them. That's where training from Winston's Wish can be so vital. 

Have you got an example you can share of how your children were treated at school when they had lost someone so very close? (This isn't for the purposes of my article, I'd just love to hear from other parents about their experiences as I'd love to see it discussed more.) 

I'd welcome any comments on this, named or anonymous and would like to possibly use the responses in a future blog post to help others. Thank you for reading. 


Children and bereavement: Families share their stories

This week I wrote a piece for Parentdish about how to help bereaved children grieve.

It wasn't an easy piece to pitch, write or see published. It gives a glimpse into how we are all facing up to things in the hope of helping others.

I once worked on a project involving research on how to support bereaved children.

As it's not online, I thought I would rewrite and edit it, as well as adding in some bloggers' wisdom.

This is a much longer version of some of the information included in the Parentdish piece.

Carrying grief with you

Of course, just like adults, no two children are the same when it comes to how they handle  bereavement.
I discovered that experts - and by that I mean bereaved people, will tell you that you don't 'get over' grief, you carry it with you and learn to live with it, day by day.
And while for adults and children alike that acceptance takes time, for children it also takes longer to understand what has happened.

Their understanding, reaction and on-going grief will also be further influenced by their age.
Joanne Mallon, also then from Parentdish, wrote this excellent post about how to talk to your children about death after Michael Jackson died. It's a great starting point and I'd strongly agree that Michael Rosen's Sad Book is a must-read for any child who has lost someone dear.

Stories of loss
Joanne's own brother died when she was nine.

I asked her how she remembered him.

She said: "My son's middle name is Jonathan. He looks very like him, but we have to remember that Isaac is his own person. I often talk to my children about Jonathan, what he was like - partly to remember him and also to give them some insight into disability.

"They talk about him - and their other relatives who've died - as angels, all together. My daughter writes little letters and prayers to him and we have a photo of me and Jonathan in the living room. I only go to his grave very rarely - his grave is in a cemetery in Belfast (right next to those of the IRA hunger strikers). I find graves very depressing. "

Karen, whose dad died when she was nine, said: "For children,  death is understood in terms of what it means to them, so if someone they love has died, it means they won’t see that person again and that makes them sad.

"It’s what made me cry when mum broke the news, and when I cried over the next few weeks and months it was always accompanied by the phrase ‘I miss Daddy’.

“I don’t think children are scared by death at all, certainly not in my experience.

"In fact I’m still not scared by death and I think that’s because it’s been openly talked about and experienced in my family – my mum’s sister died within a year of my dad, and my dad’s father too.

“We can forget how literal children are. As adults we understand implied meaning, but children may not always –

"Daddy’s gone away is a really unhelpful way of saying ‘Daddy’s dead’.
“I always joked that the highlights of not having a dad was that I never had to run my boyfriends past him, but in truth I so desperately wish I had had a dad."

A Mum Shaped Hole

You may know my lovely friend Laura from her blog Are We nearly There Yet Mummy.
But have you ever read what she calls her 'more serious' blog, A Mum Shaped Hole?
She says: “My mum died when I was nine, this is me trying to make sense of that. I am now 30 and I still struggle without her. The only way I can describe it is like having A Mum Shaped Hole in my life.”

Here’s an extract from a post, about how Laura's mum would treasure her grandchildren.

Would she think they look like me?
Would she admire my handsome boy all snails, scooters and bold adventure?
Would she smile at my beautiful girl all bossy and hands on hips smelling of apples and willful charm?
Would her heart melt when they called her name?
Would she be my shoulder to cry on when life is tough?
Would we laugh so hard that tears would fall?
I wish they had known her, and I for longer
I wish she was here
I miss my mum.

Laura told me: "I feel regret that my grief has affected my life in so many ways. Immediately afterwards was strange. Although she had been ill for two years I had no idea she was going to die. Although, subconsciously, maybe I did - as I remember being told off for humming the Funeral March one day.

"From my dad and sister's point of view it was a huge relief that Mum's suffering had ended. I come from a family where we laugh a lot and don't really discuss feelings openly and I think although I was encouraged to grieve, I was also encouraged to think about the good times.

"I now realise that I use humour as a coping mechanism and don't face things properly. The family motto is 'laugh in the face of adversity'!

"Even growing up I can remember getting cold sweats if the subject of mums came up and would rather avoid the conversation than talk about it and have people feeling sorry for me.

"It's only now that I can openly discuss my Mum and rather than feel embarrassed, feel proud of her.
"I became very clingy towards my dad and just wanted to be with him all the time.

"Since having my own children,  my relationship with my grief has changed. Because I didn't have many memories of my mum as a child I felt a bit detached from her.

"But when I had the children and experienced the love that she too must have felt I felt more of a connection.

"I had a long period where I felt so incredibly sad and I still feel panic sometimes when I think that one day something may happen to me and my children will be left without a mother. "

Insomniac Mummy also wrote hauntingly of the death of her mother, who died 30 years ago. To this day, she says, she doesn't know what happened to her ashes or if she has a memorial stone. Look at the comments too, to see not only how bloggers can rally round each other, but also how many stories of loss are yet to be shared.

Then, Insomniac Mummy wrote about her lovely Grandma. 
Englishmum often remembers her friend C and how proud her daughter would now make her.

Single Parent Dad

Another blogger writing movingly about his own experience of grief and that of his adorable son Max, is  Ian at Single Parent Dad.
Ian's wife Samantha died suddenly in 2005, when Max was a baby.

In a recent post about 'grief triggers' Ian says:
My boy understands why too, I do not like keeping things from him, he deserves the truth, however hard it is.

But last week was the first time it upset him.

I explained in the morning, what was ‘significant’ about the day, and while that was not a grief trigger for me, it certainly was for the boy.

While heartbreaking to witness, I was also immensely proud of my son. Proud because he had moved to such a level, gaining a better understanding of his loss, and able to show his emotion for it.

There was plenty of reassurance and cuddling, and we spoke about his mom, and how it was now. While she has physically gone, she will always be part of him, and gave him the best possible start in the world.

Is honesty the best policy when talking to children about bereavement?

Here’s what Cruse says:
In general, honesty is the best policy. However, there are also other considerations. When we talk to children about death we need to speak in language that they can understand. Also for some children we may let them know something about the death and share more information later when they are able to take it in.
“When we explain to a child about a death we may need to repeat what we say. We also need to be able to answer their questions.

"Also all family members need to be saying the same thing so the child does not become confused. It is also a good idea to let the child’s school know what you have said to the child.”

Bereavement counsellor Dodie Graves, from Wolverhampton's Compton Hospice, adds: “Because children can’t always express their emotions easily, understanding how they are dealing with grief can be difficult. It is common for children to want to be strong for their family, and it can be difficult for them to know who to turn to when they need support.

“Families’ bereavement support workers talk to children one-to- one, and with their families, to help them work together through their shared grief.

“They use puppets, games and art to help children express their feelings, and special memory jars and memory boxes to remember the person they’ve lost.

“They can also support families in learning how to communicate better together.”
Winston’s Wish ( has in-depth guidance for anyone wanting to help a bereaved child.

A gradual understanding

Parenting expert Sue Atkins stresses that it’s important to remember that children will not behave like adults.
It sounds obvious, but can be overlooked in these sad circumstances.
She says: “Children's understanding of death comes gradually.”

Sue's article on bereavement discusses how children of different ages may understand about death and grieve.
She says that from about nine years, most children will have an adult view of death, although this will depend on their development and maturity and their past experiences of death.

The best way of understanding what children think and feel about death is to listen carefully and to talk gently with them and be guided by them.

Many parents feel that childhood is a time free from difficulties and challenging events but in reality this just isn’t the case- but it’s how you handle the challenges that makes your children grow up well balanced, resilient and strong -able to handle the blows life deals them.

Sue adds: “It’s perfectly natural to cry in front of your children - if you explain what you are feeling."

What children going through loss need:
• Information
• Companionship
• Time to express their emotions
• Time to remember.
I’m very grateful to Sue for allowing me to use this information. She's a mum to two teenagers and a former deputy head teacher. She's also the author of Raising Happy Children for Dummies. Find out more at

Where to find help:

Winston's Wish Helpline: 0845 203 0405 (Mon-Fri 9-5pm) Childhood Bereavement Network Tel: 0115 911 8070 Child Bereavement Trust
Tel: 01494 446648 (General)
0845 357 1000 (Information/support line)

Helpline: 0844 477 9400
Road for you – part of Cruse helping young people:

Compassionate Friends
Helpline: 0845 123 2304

Books you may find helpful

*If you would like to share a story of bereavement or offer any advice to families facing the darkest of times, please do leave a comment and let us know any links to posts you think may be helpful.

* A version of this post was published on an earlier blog.

* Some of the comments with useful information, that were originally added, will also appear under this post.   

How my grief feels

You can imagine the question I hear most these days.

"How are you?"
"How are you?"
"How are you?"
"How are you?"

I love how this shows people care.

Yet however well-meant their gentle checking up, I'm often stuck for words.

Sometimes I want to retort: "How do you think I f****** am?"

My closest friend told me the other day how well she thought I was doing. We discussed if I was 'back to normal.'
But I have lost half of me.

I will never be back to my old normal.

Sometimes it's all I can do to put one foot in front of another. Today I can't manage it. I'm going nowhere. I had a panic attack yesterday evening when I opened an important and troubling letter. Its catastrophic effect is still with me.

Other days I'm unshakable in my insistence I'm going to be okay. 
I don't know what doing well means. I suspect it means times like yesterday. I was at work, being productive. I walked the dog at 6am, made sandwiches for school for my girls, went to an important meeting. I smiled and shook people's hand, but inside I was struggling so much. I couldn't remember a thing.

I know I've been changed by grief. I still had a cry at dinner time yesterday. And again last night, imploring out loud: "Where are you Baby?" and dissolving into tears when a new TV advert rang out with At last my love has come along, words so carefully chosen among other precious tunes for Neil's funeral. Sitting on the sofa, I reach out for a cushion and squeeze it hard, imagining it's Neil's hand.

I've been thinking about the ways I have been changed by grief.

I thought that writing this down could help people who haven't experienced such loss understand a bit, if they want to. The way I feel will be different to anyone else facing such a close bereavement but I'm sure there are common threads recognised by others.

I feel


I've had three panic attacks in the last three months. This is a terrifying experience. They came when I was at my most crushed, I didn't know what day it was or what planet I was on. Fuelled also by rage, I feel like I tumbled into a black hole of these frightening episodes where I appeared to be choking. I wail and my breathing is heightened and rushed. They happened thanks to immediate unbearable stress. I can't say what those instances were - it's too much of a trigger for me to again feel so bloody anxious but they are caused by the pain of the reality of certain elements of all we have been through.

In general, I'm worried about stuff anyone would be - work, getting to places on time, cost of fuel, but I'm also stressing about ridiculous things - What if one or both of my daughters is in a car crash? What if someone complains that an article I've written is a complete load of shit and the editor agrees? How about the dog opening the locked front door in the middle of the night and saunters off down the road, attacking every cat in her way?

Things that would normally cause the slightest of worry are suddenly magnified out of proportion, bringing on too much stress. If I can't find the pegs when I'm hanging out some washing, look as if I'm going to run out of petrol or forget my pen, it's a disaster of epic proportions.

Shift this up a gear or six so I'm dealing with bills, banks and important documents and I'm practically on the floor.


I am scared of dying. I am frightened of getting ill. This is multiplied for everyone I love. Most of all I worry about what will happen to my girls if I'm not around.


No shit Sherlock. 


I physically ache to feel Neil's arms around me or in the car, to stroke the back of his neck like I did when we weren't arguing about maps. I imagine sometimes he is there with me or I dream about him. When realisation dawns he's not here, I hurt like I didn't know anyone could.


I feel like I have failed. I didn't protect Neil from his illness, his anguish at leaving us or his passing.


I'm divorced from reality, I don't feel capable of going to the shop for veg for our tea or of accepting my friend's invitation for tea at her house. I'm in a different world and it's not one I think much of, thanks. Sometimes I feel like I'm on the outside looking in on other people, in the supermarket or at school meetings. Such mundane places are filled with the pain of loss as everyone else goes about their business like nothing has changed.  

Stuff that would under normal circumstances would inspire, move or entertain me, leaves me cold. I've lost interest in favourite TV programmes, can't be bothered to join friends on a night out and all the excitement around a magnificent British summer of pomp and sport has passed me by. When I think how much Neil would have loved it, I am inconsolable.


I've always been such a big softie but I have anger inside of me that needs to come out. Tears aren't enough. To watch someone you love affected as Neil was, to be faced with the incompetency and insensitivity of so many people who should have treated us better, as we both have, has completely changed my outlook on life. I think of the doctor who prescribed Nurofen gel when Neil had tumours growing in his back, the hospital staff who have filled five pages of apology for the way we were treated in his last days, the district nurse who came to our house on Christmas Eve and wanted to talk about end of life care with my children around us, the social worker who spoke to us like Neil's life was over months before it was, the ambulanceman who wanted to put my gentleman of a husband in handcuffs and the undertaker who failed to let anyone know when the funeral was and I could scream and never stop.
Our family did not deserve these body blows, least of all Neil. He isn't here to see an apology that came yesterday, bringing it all back and sending me into a panic attack. That's what makes me angry and there is nothing anyone can say to make it better. Cruel and unfair doesn't begin to cover it. 


Married four months, there won't be a single wedding anniversary we can mark together, there won't be any more Christmases, no more birthdays, no more laughter together, no more holidays, no more cuddles, no more joint pride at our beautiful daughters' milestones. And then I think about the physical side of our relationship and I am lost, utterly bereft at the prospect of such closeness being snatched away. You find me anything to make any of that make any sense and I'll find you the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

Clumsy, forgetful and accident prone

I'm dropping things, losing keys, glasses, handbags, money, packets of biscuits you name it. I can't find the right words often, saying the wrong thing like Hilda Ogden or Mrs Malathrop, (see, Mrs Malaprop I mean, typical.) I feel an idiot. I've driven the wrong way up a one way street and parked in the middle of the road. When someone wags their finger or shakes a fist at me because they don't like the way I pull up over a white line, I shrug back at them and think:  'Tell someone who gives a shit.' 

Intolerant and rude

This upsets me, I love to care for people, to be there for them, but now I'm more likely to be annoyed, particularly may I say, by people who tell me they know how I feel. I am being an arse. 

A lack of confidence

Every minute of every day I suspect I am talking bollocks. I think I'm right 80 per cent of the time. I think everything I have worked on since I've been back in the office, or out on appointments has been a let down because of me. It can't be judging by what people say but I think they're maybe just being kind. I ramble on more than I ever have.


I want to sleep. A lot. I am sleeping deeply so that's a relief.

Lonely and isolated

My family and friends are amazing. I also seek comfort from compassionate strangers online. But my heart aches for someone who truly understands where I'm coming from. Lovely kind people want to empathise so they share their experiences of grief, when they lost a parent. It  makes me cross that my grief is different, I'm sorry for their loss but what can I say? This makes me disappointed in myself. Grief is not a competitive sport.
I'm going to contact the WAY Foundation to see what that's about. First thing in the morning and last thing at night, I think of Neil and what we would be saying to each other. Throughout the day I miss his conversation, shared jokes, kisses, and love. Standing at the sink or walking the dog, I repeat: "Love you Neil, love you Neil" to nobody but myself.

But there are still ways that my life is on track. I will not allow my new-found unabashed pessimism to derail me completely. I know this isn't what Neil wanted and my daughters don't need a mum who snaps and bickers all the time.

My resolve to make sure we are all okay is as strong as it was the day I promised Neil we would be. I have a clear vision of priorities, newly defined goals, a never before realised determination to look after myself and an abundance of love from my amazing family and friends.

I will always carry my grief with me, but just as Neil said, I will not let it beat me. I am not ashamed of my grief, it's the price we pay for love. Thank you for reading.

And thank you for asking how I am.