Most of us working in the early years sector have experienced grief at some point in our lives, whether in childhood or in our adult lives. This holds true for the families and children we work with. As early years educators, we must be aware that children grieve too. While children assume that their family will always stay the same, research indicates that two in every 100 9-year-olds in Ireland have lost a parent. Loss of other important people in a young child’s world can include siblings, friends, aunts, uncles, grandparents or other close loved ones. Death can be frightening for children, who may not have the information to help them to understand what is happening. Unlike adults, children dip in and out of grief. It can be intermittent and intense but can also pass quickly, distracted by friends and activities.
Each child in a family grieves differently due to their personality, gender, and the relationship they have with the person who has died. Bereaved children are best supported in their natural environment and not all bereaved children need professional support. It is okay to be sad with your bereaved child. They need to be given time and space to remember the person and, in some cases, it can be supportive for them to meet with other bereaved children.
What children say helps and it is important to be available to talk when the child wants to talk. It is also important to acknowledge that their loss is important. Honest information helps a child to understand. Taking part in the goodbye ritual and having a part to play in it can be very beneficial for children. When telling a child that a loved one has died, the words used should be clear, such as dead or died – it is not helpful to use terms such as ‘gone’, ‘gone to sleep’, ‘gone to Heaven’, ‘passed away’, etc. as this can be very confusing and the child may either expect the person to come back or that they can go and visit them.
As early years educators, we may need to provide some extra support in the period that follows a bereavement. This should be appropriate to the child’s developmental stage and the wishes of the family. It is important to remember that children’s grief is different from that of adults and children grieve in spurts – sometimes several times a day. At those times, their grief can be very intense. Children need to know it is okay to play and have fun and not be sad all the time. You might consider buying some books on bereavement to help you support a young child who is grieving, or who may experience the loss of a loved one in the near future.
This week sees the third National Bereaved Children’s Awareness Week. This is intended to highlight the needs of bereaved children and ways to support them through difficult periods of loss. The Irish Childhood Bereavement Network (ICBN) will host a national event, ‘Children Grieve Too’, at Dublin City Council Civic Offices, Wood Quay, Dublin 8. This will take place on Thursday 15 November from 10am until 3:30pm.
The Irish Childhood Bereavement Network provide support and information in relation to children and loss. It advocates for bereaved children, young people, and their families. A number of useful resources are available on its website: www.childhoodbereavement.ie
Phil Lynch, (M.Sc.) is an Early Childhood Specialist in Research and Professional Learning with Early Childhood Ireland. She has worked in the early childhood education and care sector for over thirty-five years as an early year’s and adult educator, lecturer and mentor. Keen areas of interest are the quality of pedagogical leadership and the importance of continuing professional learning.