Each year in Australia, around 1 in 20 children will experience the death of a parent or sibling prior to the age of 18*. Despite being so common, too many bereaved children are not accessing the vital child support that they need to grow into adulthood empowered with choice, opportunity, and personal resources.
Child support after death in Australia should enable bereaved children to live a life in which they realise their full potential, rather than feeling helpless, stigmatised, and isolated. The death of a loved one will alter their daily lives, however there are various ways to offer children and teens support after death to help them through these changes.
Supporting a child immediately after death
The initial step in supporting a bereaved child immediately after death is to create a safe space.
When talking to your child about the death of a loved one, it is important to be prompt, honest and straight forward. Use care and be direct, but also give your child a moment to take in your words. Be sure to provide your child with accurate, age-appropriate information, and avoid using vague messages as these will easily confuse a child when explaining death (such as “gone to sleep” or “gone away).
Your child may need you to explain what death means in simple terms. You may not have all the answers and that is okay. The key is to establish and open the lines of communication. It is crucial that you encourage your child to express their thoughts and feelings in the days, weeks, and months following the loss and beyond. If your child needs you to explain death, talk in terms of the body not working anymore. It is also important that they know that death is permanent and happens to everyone at some point. You might say, “Dead means the person’s body stops working. When someone is dead it can’t be fixed, and they can’t come back.”
No matter how your child reacts to the death of a loved one, comfort them, offer them hugs, and keep them close. Some children will cry, some will ask questions, and others will seem to not react at all. Reassure them that the death of their loved one is not their fault. Reinforce that they are cared for and loved, and they are safe, and you are safe.
The death of a loved one will likely mean that your child must cope with changes in their routine. Let your child know what will happen next and be clear about any new arrangements that have been made. Visual schedules can also help younger children adjust to new routines. Discuss any mourning rituals, such as the memorial service and the funeral with your child. Explain ahead of time what will happen at these ceremonies and offer your child a role (such as reading a poem or sharing a memory). It is important to allow your child to decide whether they would like to take part in these rituals.
Adapting to life after the death of a loved one
Bereaved people, including children, often find it difficult to manage the changes in their lives following the death of a loved one. When the funeral and/or memorial service is done, and people go back to work and school, it can be a difficult time for children because understandably everything feels different. It is important to support your child to move forward and create a safe environment for them to engage in a healthy grieving process.
Create a safe space for your child to ask questions, discuss their feelings, and open up about their concerns after the death of their loved one. Maintaining continuity and your child’s normal routines at home, at school, in sports and in the community will be helpful. Engaging with daily responsibilities and pastimes is important for your child’s health and enables them to move forward in their grieving process. Creating opportunities to remember the deceased person through rituals, remembrance activities, or even making a memory box may help them process their emotions.
Supporting a child through anniversaries and holidays
Certain dates, such as the anniversary of the loss, birthdays, and holidays, may heighten children’s grief as they are reminders of their loss. It is important to normalise the fact that such dates may evoke powerful memories and feelings surrounding a loved one’s death. Even though it is difficult to anticipate how your child will feel on these dates, it is best to prepare them in case they need extra support and care.
Together with your child, they may benefit from scheduling social activities and making plans for these days as a family. Making plans is a good way to remind a bereaved child that they are not alone in their grief. Another way to support your child through difficult times is to encourage reflection, remembrance, and reminiscing. You may also want to mark this day with a new tradition, such as cooking a meal that the deceased person enjoyed, lighting a candle, or giving to a cause. Lastly, offer your child time to discuss what they are feeling and what they need from you on these significant, and often difficult dates.
Seeking support for yourself and your child
In Australia, there are a range of resources and support available for both you and your child.
- Feel the Magic provide grief education programs and camps for children aged 7 to 17 who have experienced the death of a parent, guardian, or sibling.
- Click here to access Feel the Magic’s Grief Resource Hub which contains information to help you through a range of challenges.
- When someone dies, it can be hard to know who you’re supposed to tell. Click here to be directed to Services Australia.
- Read about how to cope financially after losing your partner. If you need financial support, click here to be directed to Services Australia.
- Talk with your doctor or local community health centre if you or your child require professional support or counselling services.
- Kids Helpline is Australia’s only free, confidential 24/7 online and phone counselling service for young people aged 5 to 25.
- Beyond Blue provides confidential counselling services.
- Griefline provides telephone and online counselling services.
- Headspace supports young people (12 to 25 years) who are going through a difficult time.
- Lifeline is a 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention service.
- Solace provides grief support for those grieving the death of their partner.
- Postvention Australia and StandBy support people bereaved by suicide.
* 4102.0 – Australian Social Trends, Sep 2010, Parental Divorce or Death During Childhood