How to cope with traumatic bereavement?

Losing a loved one can be one of the most painful things in life. Grief is a universal but also personal response to loss that can engulf a person for many days, weeks, or years. Grief isn’t a single emotion either. It can include anger, restlessness, irritation, emptiness, apathy, worry, horror, and heartache. Often with time, grief can dissipate, although it may always be there.

Sometimes, bereavements can be so painful they are called traumatic bereavement. This means that there is something about the death that is too much to handle for process, the grieving process gets stuck. Not all deaths will make a bereavement traumatic. In many cases, the bereaved person may only need regular contact from friends and family and some advice on how to process their grief. But there are some circumstances which make a bereavement more likely to be traumatic, potentially causing post-traumatic stress. For example, when a death is sudden and unexpected. Or when someone has witnessed the death or unable to say goodbye properly, such as in recent times when family members could not see their loved ones in hospitals because of the pandemic.

When deaths are traumatic, each person will react differently and the responses may not be obvious.

Young children (under 5 years)

For very young children, this could be expressed in their play or at quieter times like bedtime. They may cry or over-react to things or be easily startled. Often they may not understand the death which can make it particularly frightening for them, while memories of the event may be difficult to control.

5 to 10 year olds

For middle childhood (5-10 years), they are old enough to recognise traumatic events and may be easily unsettled. They may find it difficult to control their reactions and become preoccupied with the trauma or become very aggressive. They may have poor concentration, disorganised memory and low motivation. Their self-esteem may be impacted and they may withdraw.


For teenagers, their reactions can be more emotional or more exaggerated. They may become involved in drugs or alcohol or sexual behaviours. They may find traumatic memories of the death upsetting and uncontrollable. They may feel fatigued or worried. They may become highly sensitive to their friends and withdraw or act out.

How to Help your Child

Being aware of your child’s behaviour and how they seem to have changed following a bereavement is key to ensuring they are supported and helped through this difficult time. There are a number of ways you can help your child:

  1. Keep family members together as far as possible because children will feel safest when everyone can support each other.
  2. Try maintain daily routines – following a death, daily routines can become disrupted, making it less predictable for children. They feel safest when they know what to expect next. For example, maintain bedtime routines and eat mealtimes at the same time each day.
  3. Be open and communicate age-appropriate explanations for what has happened and what death means. The more they know about what really happened, the less time they will spend imagining scarier possibilities. Allow questions and conversations.
  4. Looking at albums and discussing memories or visiting the grave can help make the death feel real while keeping the memory of the loved one alive.
  5. Take your child’s fear seriously – reassure them but also let them know that you understand their fear and why it is important.
  6. Allow children to express their feelings of anger, blame or guilt but provide them with comfort and reassurance that what they are feeling is normal.
  7. Make a plan for reminders and provide assurance that reminders will become weaker with time.
  8. Involve the children in marking anniversaries or significant events.
  9. Explore the possibility of therapy – we often use EMDR (explained here) to help people let go of traumatic images or unhelpful beliefs that they formed around the death. With children, this can often be ‘it was my fault’. EMDR can allow the child/ person to grieve the loss and begin to find a way to move forward.

If you’d like to explore this more, take a look at this video made by the UK Trauma Council.

Bereavement is incredibly painful and traumatic bereavement can be even harder for the person as well as those around them. Here at Pocket Family, we are always here to talk if you’d like to get in touch.

Take care.

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“Dr Andrea Shortland’s session for MediaCom on a children’s mental health was incredibly informative. During the second period of lockdown and home-schooling; parents and children found themselves again in a period of upheaval and transition. Many parents and carers were extremely worried about their children’s mental health and their own ability to be present and engaged whilst also playing the role of teacher and care giver. Dr Shortland gave attendees an insight into how many parents were feeling; tips on supporting children and helping them cope whilst studying from home and also managing their mental health. She also helped us realise the importance of taking care of ourselves in order to effectively support our children. It was such a useful session that we realise it was also pertinent for not only children’s mental health but also adults! We will be holding another session with Dr Andrea and MediaCom soon.”

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