#Open journalism No news is bad news

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support The Journal
Dublin: 7°C Friday 26 February 2021

Column: Young people are the “forgotten mourners”

Supporting a child through grief can seem like a daunting process but it requires three simple human attributes, Aoife Mary O’Brien explains: honesty, patience, and empathy.

Aoife Mary O'Brien

Updated 21 November 11.30am

“There is no grief like the grief that does not speak.”

– H. W. Longfellow

DEATH IS INEVITABLE and universal and the subsequent grief that follows it is a unique experience for everyone.  Grief is a natural and normal reaction following bereavement and researchers have yet to find a society that does not display signs of grieving.  Thus, grief is a collective experience that resonates with all of us.  While we know a great deal about the clinical impact of bereavement and grief on adults; there is less literature available on the impact of loss on young people.  It has been suggested that young people are the “forgotten mourners” whose grief is often overlooked.

Recent research has estimated that there are between 36,000 and 60,000 young people in Ireland who have experienced a significant bereavement.  November is the month where communities remember the dead; while we may be aware of this, we may not be as cognisant of the fact that Thursday the 21st of November is also Children’s Grief Awareness Day.

Common reactions to loss and bereavement

We all live in a world where we assume that life will carry on as it always has; children assume that they will go to school, do their homework, and generally behave as most young people do.  Following a death, a young person’s “assumptive world” is transformed (see Colin Murray Parkes).  The security that they had once felt is broken and fragmented and they must try to piece it back together and learn to negotiate and accept their new world, which has been changed forever.

A child’s understanding of death advances with their cognitive development which is constantly maturing through childhood and adolescence. Many factors will influence a child’s reaction to bereavement and how they adjust to the death of a loved one (eg, age, type of death, response of other family members, socio-economic background).

The literature tells us that bereaved children may experience psychological, behavioural and somatic problems, as well as difficulties in school performance and peer relationships.  While each individual child’s reaction to death is unique, there are some common reactions that may manifest following such an event, these can include: anxiety; anger and aggression; inability to concentrate; psychosomatic complaints; sleep difficulties; learning and concentration difficulties; and regressive behaviour.

Considering all of this, it is understandable that many people, who are aware that a child is grieving, will want to help.

How to help

For those of us who do not come from a clinical or therapeutic background, a common concern is of causing further pain by re-traumatising a grieving child.  We may feel that we lack the skills and knowledge to make a real contribution to supporting a child in a positive way.  But what we all do know is how to be human.  While I am not a trained counsellor or psychologist, the literature I have read and the people that I have met through my research have reiterated the same concept through different mediums, but all with the same message.   Supporting a child through grief requires three simple human attributes: honesty, patience, and empathy.

The first step is honesty.  Being honest and answering questions truthfully without overloading with additional information is essential when supporting grieving children.  Providing clear information and clarifying misinformation builds the foundation for working through grief.  Explaining to children the facts of the event can help with the healing process by aiding the development of effective coping strategies in order to deal with life’s future losses.

The next step is patience. Displaying patience by taking the time to listen can be tremendously valuable.  Much research has shown that “having someone to listen” was one of the significant factors in supporting a young person through their grief in a positive way.  As we listen, we help the child to explore and express their grief by telling their story.  Whether we are friends or acting in a more professional role with a grieving child, how we respond is important.  Active listening, through our words and body language, can help to alleviate, if only for a brief period, some of the symptomatologies associated with grief.

The third and final step is empathy.  We often misuse or perhaps misunderstand the terms “sympathy” and “empathy”.   Sympathy is the acknowledgment of another person’s emotional hardship while providing comfort and assurance.  Whereas empathy is a deep understanding of what others are feeling, perhaps because you have experienced it yourself or can put yourself in their shoes.

While we often show sympathy upon announcement of bereavement, it is the latter that is of more significance.  Expressing empathy can validate the feelings of a grieving child and give them the opportunity to tell their story.  Empathy involves seeing the world through the eyes of the grieving child you are supporting and recognising that their anxieties, concerns, and subsequent behaviours are a result of the loss that they are experiencing.

#Open journalism No news is bad news Support The Journal

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support us now

Remember November

Children’s Grief Awareness Day provides us all with an opportunity to recognise and support the grieving young people across our nation, the forgotten mourners who may be in our own communities, and those that we know and see in our daily lives who may be suffering.   November is a time to remember those who have gone before us; but perhaps too, it is also a time to look around us to see those who have been left behind.

Research has shown that one in five children whose parent has died is likely to require specialist support.  However, it is important to remember that not all young people need the support of outside agencies.

When there is a need for support, there are many services out there that can help, some of which have been listed below:

  1. Barnardos Bereavement Counselling for Children
  1. Irish Childhood Bereavement Network: The first ICBN Regional Meeting has been announced for December 9th in Milford Care Centre, Castletroy, Limerick on December 9th.

  1. Rainbows Ireland

Aoife M. O’Brien is a qualified primary school teacher currently undertaking her Ph.D. studies in the School of Education at Trinity College Dublin.  Aoife’s research studies are mapping the knowledge and understanding of bereavement in Irish schools, retrospective accounts of bereavement from educators, and the development of curricular and CPD programmes and materials for use by, and with, educators and allied professions.

If you are interested in taking part in this research, contact can be made at: Obriena2@tcd.ie

About the author:

Aoife Mary O'Brien

Read next: