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Most critical incidents involve bereavement and many teachers do not feel fully confident to respond to bereavement and loss.  They worry about saying or doing the ‘wrong’ thing.  This section of the training is designed to help staff to feel better prepared to respond to bereavement, both as part of a critical incident and at other times of loss. 

This section will first cover the developmental understanding of death at different ages.

Bereavement and Loss

Developmental Understanding

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There is an overlap between the different stages.  It is important to account for not only different ages of children, but also the understanding at different developmental levels.  Be mindful that children with different kinds of special educational needs may process what has happened in different ways. Please refer to this attached article which outlines how children and young people with ASD may process bereavement. 

Children of all ages may worry about who will take care of them and may experience insecurity, clinginess and fear of abandonment. It is important to use concrete terms such as ‘death’ or ‘died’ rather than ‘passed away’ to avoid confusion.

Developmental Understanding
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Whilst children of this age may not understand cognitively what has happened they will be impacted and they will react. They do not understand permanence so they will ask questions repeatedly. 

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Children of this age are egocentric and see themselves as causing events around them.  They may feel guilty or responsible for the death.  They react to loss through behaviour e.g. irritability, aggression, physical/somatic symptoms, difficulty sleeping, regression, e.g. with bed wetting, earlier developmental play and behaviours. 

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Children of this age tend to personify death e.g. putting it into monster form.

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It might be helpful for staff to understand that somatic complaints like headaches or tummy aches might be physical manifestations of the emotional pain of grief.

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Adolescents have an adult understanding of the concept of death but don’t yet have the experiences or coping skills of an adult.  They may act out in anger or show impulsive or reckless behaviours e.g. substance misuse/fighting.  Developmental issues of independence and separation from parents can interfere with their ability to receive support from adult family members. 

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Children will be affected by their relationship to the deceased or ‘lost’ person, their previous experiences of loss and their personal resilience.   Their attachment experiences, their developmental level and any additional needs will also have an influence.  In the case of the death of a parent, even if the child had little contact with them it is important to acknowledge the death and to allow them to grieve. 


Also, the circumstances of the death or loss will be important to consider.  Staff should find out how the news was given to the child and what opportunities they have had to express their grief.  The death may follow an illness or disability and death can be sudden death, due to accident or suicide.  Winston’s Wish, a national children’s bereavement charity, describe suicide as ‘grief with the volume turned up’. 


It is helpful to be mindful of the child’s home situation and the support available from family, friends and community as well as faith and cultural perspectives. 

Reference: Erica Brown

Factors that Affect Response

Factors that Affect Response
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In some communities ‘death’ is just seen as one step in the continuous cycle of life.  Rituals and ceremonies can be public and demonstrative or private and quiet.  In some cultures the period of mourning is fixed.  The feelings experienced by people of different cultures are very similar but the way they are expressed can be very different.

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Think about what children may need when they have been bereaved.

“The way in which children are treated when someone important in their lives is lost or dies has a profound effect on their future ability to manage their lives” Child Bereavement UK. 

  • Children need quality attention without distraction.  They need someone to really listen to their experience and to show empathy. 

  • Acknowledge that the feelings can be huge for the child and offer them the opportunity to talk about it a bit more. 

  • Acknowledge to the child that it is okay to have worries.  You could use ‘The Huge Bag of Worries’ book or you could have a bag of stones on your desk and say, “I wonder if there’s a stone in there that is like one of your worries?’

  • Some research indicates that children want some normality when bereaved and sometimes need some space, for example, they may not want you to ask them how they are every time you see them. 


  • Pupils may have lots of questions like:


  • Why’s my Dad gone?

  • Why did she die?

  • Is X (remaining parent) going to die now?

  • How can I stop panicking?

  • Is it okay to have fun?

  • What’s going on in my family?

  • What can I do to help?

  • How can I help my Mum?

The most useful thing is honesty; what children don’t know they will imagine.  Answer the child with openness and honesty and bearing in mind their developmental level.  “If the child is ready to ask the question, they are ready to hear the answer”.  An adult can reflect back awkward questions, by asking, “Is that something that you’re worried about?” to explore the child’s thinking. 

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Being alongside someone experiencing loss can be emotionally draining and it can be hard if it brings up personal experiences – the need for support is perfectly normal.

When working with children who have experienced loss or bereavement:

  • Prepare to be emotionally affected.  It is normal to feel overwhelmed, drained or exhausted.

  • We need to acknowledge to ourselves and our own supporters how we’re feeling – our own losses may resurface and it may be that we do not currently have the emotional capacity to support someone.  It is important to know our own limits. 

  • Equally we don’t need to be a bereavement specialist to help a child who has been bereaved.  Teachers are naturally caring; often it’s about being there.  The key person with a relationship with the child can help them to feel listened to.


  • It is important to share feelings. Talk to friends/colleagues and share experiences.

  • Remember professional boundaries.

  • Anticipate where you may experience an emotional reaction.

  • It is important that we listen to ourselves. 

Put time aside for self-care: relaxation, exercise, what else?

Approaches and Strategies

Approaches and Strategies
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You could consider setting up a toolbox, for example, containing sample letters, assemblies, resources, poems, information on how bereavement is viewed and responded to in different cultures and religions etc.

You should have a policy that includes your plans and procedures for responding to a critical incident.  It is important to differentiate between loss and bereavement that might impact an individual child or family group and a critical incident which impacts the school community ('Defining a critical incident').

You may want to include books on loss and grief, for example, those produced by Winston’s Wish, such as ‘Beyond the Rough Rock’ or ‘Hope Beyond the Headlines’.  Some useful resources and websites can be found at (See 'Useful links and resources').

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When supporting bereavement and loss for children with social communication needs/ASD:

  • Tailor your approach to the needs of the individual child who should be supported by adults who know them well.

  • Bear in mind that a child with ASD may demonstrate their grief in different ways from other children.

  • Try to keep to the familiar, keeping to as many normal routines as possible as any changes are likely to create additional distress.

  • Expect that a child with ASD may seek solace through isolation rather than social contact.

  • There may be a general increased sensitivity, for example, the child may be quicker to anger than usual or sensory sensitivities may be amplified.

  • Give the child the opportunity to take part in social rituals but be ready to put in a lot of preparation beforehand, for example, through social stories. It may be helpful for the child with ASD to have a little job to do at the funeral such as hand out the order of service, pass around refreshments etc.

  • Be explicit about events and rituals and address the hidden social rules directly.  Don’t be afraid if the child is interested in seeking ‘the facts’ surrounding a death and try to answer questions openly and honestly giving information using accurate and concrete terminology.

  • Avoid euphemisms as children with ASD will have even more difficulty extracting meaning from them than other children.

  • Expect a rise in pre-existing self-stimulatory behaviours (for example, rocking, tapping, flicking) or special interests both of which can have a calming influence. 

  • Prepare others for how the child might behave and explain that they are not purposely rude or unfeeling.  They are experiencing grief but may be expressing it differently. 

  • Know the child’s individualities and sensitivities and try to work out what may be most difficult for them and try to address this, for example, the lighting in a hospital room, seeing others cry or worrying about who will take them to school now.

  • Ensure the child’s usual methods of self-soothing are available at times when they are particularly likely to experience distress, anger or anxiety.

  • Prepare for child for events and changes in routine wherever possible.

(Adapted from: Katie Koehler DClinPsych, (2016). Supporting children and young people with Autism Spectrum Disorder through bereavement, Bereavement Care, 35:3, 94-101, DOI: 10.1080/02682621.2016.1254437).

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The grief experienced by those bereaved due to suicide can be intense and unique compared with other losses.  Survivors of suicide are more likely to experience more frequent feelings of confusion, blame, guilt, shame, anger, rejection, intense emotions of embarrassment, responsibility and stigmatisation.  For a child, there is additional uncertainty and fear surrounding the concept that a primary caregiver can choose to die and leave.  Evidence suggests that children and young people that have lost a close family member to suicide are at a higher risk of self-harm and suicide.

When the suicide is of a pupil staff need to ensure that the support following the death does not involve glorification of the act of the suicide or the deceased.  This means that aspects of the response should be muted (See 'Introduction: Impact' section).

A note on language related to suicide

The term ‘committed suicide’ is now considered outdated as suicide is no longer a crime and can be seen by bereaved families as offensive.  Winston’s Wish advocate the use of the following terms:

  • He/she took their own life

  • He/she ended their own life

  • Death by suicide

Paula Baxter in her doctoral research on the views and experiences of young people impacted by parental suicide identified what they felt was needed/helpful:

  • More understanding surrounding suicide.

  • Guidance and support in association with having an option for time off to grieve.

  • Educational establishments to have discussions with the pupil and family regarding the possibility of an adapted time table and postponing exams.

  • Structured catch-up and revision plans.

  • School to make arrangements for the pupil to access specialist support.

  • To have access to the support of people who have experienced suicide bereavement.

  • Teachers need some sensitivity training on topics like suicide.  

  • Posters in schools to increase awareness of bereavement by suicide.

  • Schools need to be aware of the negative impact of complicated grief surrounding suicide.

  • Awareness around mental health and suicide and that it can happen to anyone.

  • Access to counsellors.

  • Talking about the subject openly.

  • Approaching the pupil and talking about it, asking if they need help and support rather than leaving the pupil to approach the teachers.

  • Offer one to one support with school work.

  • Understanding the impact that it has on functioning in everyday life and learning in school.

Baxter, P. 2019. ‘School after suicide: child and young person’s experience in education after losing a parent to suicide’. 

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Differences in critical incident response when a child’s death has been through suicide

There are some differences in guidance for how a setting should respond following a child’s death that is thought to have been through suicide.  These are outlined below:

  • Firstly, whilst it may be thought that the child or young person died through suicide, this is an extremely sensitive area, so do not assume this is the case until this information has been confirmed by the family.  Sometimes the family is very clear about this and is happy for this information to be shared, but in other cases, the death will be considered a tragic accident and the mention of any other possible cause may give offence.

  • If suicide has been confirmed, the family should be asked who they would be comfortable knowing this information.

  • If suicide has been confirmed, the appropriate language, e.g. “took their own life” should be used (see “A note on language related to suicide” above) and the phrase “committed suicide” avoided.  If you are sending a letter to parents of all pupils, you may decide you want to report the “sudden death” rather than explicitly reporting that it was “death through suicide”.  It is important that the family is comfortable with the wording you have used.

  • The principle of discussing death openly and honestly must be balanced with the need to avoid glorification either of the act of suicide or of the deceased.  The method of suicide should not be shared with children and young people, nor with the wider group of parents. 

  • Staff must guard against contagion.  If a lot of attention is focused on the dead student and memories of them amplified through large memorials in school, other vulnerable young people might be drawn to the act of suicide, feeling attracted to the idea of the attention they might receive.

  • Those students closest to the young person who ended their own life should be given the opportunity to honour their friend through a meaningful, but discreet memorial, which they can have input on planning.  Show empathy for these young people about their acute sense of loss and the importance to them of acknowledging their friend’s life and connection to them.  Students will usually understand the idea of contagion and the need to protect others. 

  • Monitoring of young people’s wellbeing following the suicide of a student is particularly important, due to concerns around contagion.  Consider reasons for vulnerability carefully when compiling your vulnerable list.  (See use of 'Monitoring Matrix' in Support and Monitoring section).

  • Following other types of bereavement, schools often place a book for memories and condolences in a public part of the school; such a book is then usually leafed through and read by any contributors.  In the case of a child dying through suicide, an alternative way of carrying this out which avoids the likelihood of contagion is to create a posting box into which students, staff and parents can post contributions on pieces of paper.  These comments and memories can later be pasted into a book by a nominated member of staff, who can present the book to the child’s parents at an appropriate point.

  • Permanent memorials such as a bench are not advised in the case of suicide, as this can contribute to a sense of glorification.   

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