How To Support Children Through Grief And Bereavement With Justine Wilson

How To Support Children Through Grief And Bereavement With Justine Wilson

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Experiencing the death of a close family member will have a massive impact on the emotional well-being of any student. But how do we â€" as teachers and educator â€" support pupils through this difficult time?

In this episode of School Behaviour Secrets, we interview Justin Wilson, a counsellor with Edward†s Trust who†s highly experienced at supporting kids through bereavement. She explains how to open up a conversation about grief, what to say to your studentâ€Ã and what to avoid saying.

Important links:

The Edward†s Trust website (including online resources)

Edward†s Trust YouTube page with videos

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Download other FREE behaviour resources for use in school:

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Show notes / transcription

Justine Wilson  0:00  

I think there's something about simple and honest communications. So we can all be guilty actually of using euphemisms when we're talking about death. So people might say that person has gone to sleep or they're watching over you or they're in the stars. And it may feel like it softens the blow almost and makes it easier for the child to kind of take on board. But I think for children, often they can take that literally so you can find that children, for example, might struggle to want to go to bed and go to sleep if they've been told that someone's gone to sleep.

Simon Currigan  0:40  

Hi there. My name is Simon Currigan and welcome to another action packed episode of school behaviour secrets. While other educational podcasts saw like a mighty eagle on the wind. We're more like a seagull, dirty, scrappy. And if you're not watching us carefully, we'll pinch your chips the first chance we get. I'm joined today by my co host Emma Shackleton. Hi, Emma. 

Emma Shackleton  1:39  

Hi, Simon. 

Simon Currigan  1:41  

Emma, I'd like to start by asking you a question.

Emma Shackleton  1:44  

Locked into a rigid routine Simon?

Simon Currigan  1:46  

You know it, Emma in 2018 In a survey of over 1000 Americans, what topics did they describe as being too taboo to talk about to their friends?

Emma Shackleton  1:57  

Oh, taboo topics.

Simon Currigan  2:00  

Keep it family friendly.

Emma Shackleton  2:00  

I was just gonna say this is a family show, right? 

Simon Currigan  2:03  


Emma Shackleton  2:03  

People might be listening to this episode with kids in earshot. So I'll take a guess at a taboo subject might be their intimate personal relationships. How much money they earned maybe?

Simon Currigan  2:15  

Okay, well, yeah. On the second one, you were on the right lines. They were household earnings, retirement savings, debt and inheritance. They were the big answers.

Emma Shackleton  2:23  

All about money. 

Simon Currigan  2:24  

All about money, yeah, less taboo were considered politics, drug use and racial issues.

Emma Shackleton  2:28  

Okay, and no one cares about the personal relationships. 

Simon Currigan  2:30  

No, it didn't come up. 

Emma Shackleton  2:31  

Where are we going with this then? 

Simon Currigan  2:33  

Well, today's guest on the show is on to talk about a topic that's often considered taboo in families. And that's bereavement. Bereavement of a family member affects a surprisingly large number of kids in school, particularly now, given the pandemic. But as adults, we often find it difficult to open that conversation about death or worry about saying the wrong thing. So we're going to speak to Justine Wilson, a qualified counsellor with years of experience supporting kids through bereavement.

Emma Shackleton  2:59  

Okay, so this is a really important topic. And before we press play on that interview, I'd like to say that if you find today's episode useful, then do please help other teachers and school leaders to find the podcast. You can do this quickly and easily by opening your podcast app, hitting the share button. Maybe pick your favourite three friends or colleagues in education, send them a direct link, it'll take you less than 30 seconds. And now here's Simon's interview with Justine Wilson.

Simon Currigan  3:34  

Today, we're very lucky to have Justine Wilson on the podcast. Justine is clinical lead at Edwards trust, a charity that specialises in supporting children with bereavement. She's a qualified counsellor with years of practical experience working within community based counselling and school settings. Her career has also included managing a hospice bereavement service, where the volunteers were awarded a Queen's award for voluntary service. So she's incredibly experienced at supporting children around the issues of death and grief and bereavement. And she's agreed to share that experience with us today to help us understand and support the pupils that we work with in schools. Justine, welcome to the show. 

Justine Wilson  4:15  

Thank you, Simon. 

Simon Currigan  4:16  

Justine, I'd like to start by asking how many students are affected by bereavement each year? How common is this in our classrooms?

Justine Wilson  4:23  

Well, I mean, if we look at the most recent statistics that are available to us, it's believed that a parent of a child under 18 dies every 22 minutes, which is, you know, quite remarkable, really. So we're looking at sort of 111 children being bereaved of a parent every day. And so if we equate that to the classroom, we're looking at sort of warning 29 of five to 16 year olds that will have been bereaved of a parent or a sibling. So that's potentially at least one child in every class,

Simon Currigan  5:01  

Wow, when you think of it in those terms, by the end of the time that a child can move through their school career, it shows how really common this is.

Justine Wilson  5:08  

Yeah. And that's just talking about, obviously, the loss of a close family member. But there is that ripple effect of bereavement, you know, so they may be other losses, actually, for that young person that they're affected by that may not be directly a family member.

Simon Currigan  5:27  

So how does the death of a family member affect a child? And what kind of behaviour changes might we see at home or in school?

Justine Wilson  5:34  

Yeah, so I think for the very young age range, so sort of two to five year olds, potentially, you could see children becoming clingy, they might be displaying sort of anger, tantrums, that sort of thing. You can also see regression in their behaviour. So they may be actually going backwards in terms of their development with things like toilet training, and sleeping and things like that. And they may be withdrawn, they may be anxious, so we really see it in their behaviour.

Simon Currigan  6:07  

What kind of things might they say, that might alert us that, you know, they're struggling with what's happening?

Justine Wilson  6:12  

I think at the younger age range, it may well be more their behaviour than what they actually say, because I guess it's about having the vocabulary to be able to put into words, the emotions that they're feeling. So I mean, sometimes the children that come to Edwards Trust, you know, there may be able to talk quite specifically and clearly about the death of their parent, for example, or a sibling and be able to tell us what's happened and that sort of thing. But often you will see with children that it comes out in their behaviour. And then if you look at the older age group of sort of five to ten year old, so that older range of primary school, you might find that they're displaying somatic symptoms, so they can be experiencing it in their body actually tummy aches, headaches, that sort of thing, that they can retreat into themselves, they can, again, become increasingly aggressive. And they might become more curious, actually, in some ways, but they might start to worry more as well. So again, you know, those behaviours that you see that might be demonstrating that they're struggling with what's going on. And of course, if we think about how children are coping with bereavement, they're also potentially in a household where there's a lot of other people that might be grieving, and they may be doing that in different ways. So you know, there may be big changes going on at home, actually, in terms of how children experiencing home life and the changes that bereavement may bring for them.

Simon Currigan  7:48  

And what about as children move into their teenage years, their adolescence, what sort of changes do we see at the secondary age group?

Justine Wilson  7:54  

So for that older age group, you know, really intense feelings can be experienced by that sort of age group. So they may find that it's difficult to talk and you know, that can often be difficult for families as well, when their teens won't talk to them, or won't tell them how they're feeling about the loss, they may become more withdrawn. Again, they might start testing boundaries, actually, and taking risks. So those kinds of things, they can be feeling worse about themselves sometimes, and it can bring up a lot of questions for them in terms of the existential sort of stuff, you know, what is life all about? What does this mean for me? as well. And for our teens, I suppose when we think about that sort of transition into adulthood, you know, they're probably slightly moving away from their family and relying more on the friendships and building those relationships externally. And that can be quite difficult to read, actually, if we don't know what's going on for young people. And certainly, if they're not want to talk about things, that can be quite tricky.

Simon Currigan  9:02  

what do children understand about death? I mean, presumably, that changes depending on the age group as well?

Justine Wilson  9:08  

The very young ones, so the under fives are not going to understand the finality of death. So they can think that death is reversible. You know, if we think about the kids cartoons and things that we see on children's programmes, it isn't always the case that death is final and so there can be that sort of thinking going on. They can have a very literal understanding about things. So we do have to be careful actually, about what we tell them. And I know we may talk a little bit more about that, you know, as we progress, and then if we're thinking about the next age group, so sort of five to eight, they are starting to get an understanding perhaps of the finality of death, they might have had experiences of pets, for example, that kind of thing. And it can be quite scary for them, but they can also go into that magical thinking process that they may be able to do something to change it. So if I'm really, really good, perhaps Daddy will come back or, you know, there's that sort of thing that I might be able to influence this situation. And they can obviously feel the strong emotions, but they may not have the vocabulary to attached to how they're feeling. So again, going back to what we were talking about, with the behaviours that can very much come out that way. And then if we're progressing up to nine to twelve year olds, we're thinking that they understand a little bit more about the finality of death. And of course, this is very general kind of brackets that we're talking about here. Because it really depends on the individual involved and their developmental stages, and how their understanding is shaped by their experience of life up to that point as well. But that's the sort of nine to twelve year old age group, they are going to be more aware of the personal impacts of the loss. So you know, what does this mean to me in this context that I'm in, and they will potentially have the vocabulary to understand their thoughts and feelings a little bit more, and be able to explain how they're feeling or what's going on for them. Also, I suppose if we think about that age range, they're potentially going through quite a lot of transition as well, you know, their personal development, but also their educational pathway as well, there can be transitions there, which can become really difficult when you're experiencing grief and bereavement, and there is bereavement within the family. So I suppose it's always worth being aware that those kind of changes for our pupils can really bring up things around loss and bereavement again, for them, even if they seem to be doing okay, up to that point.

Simon Currigan  11:58  

At this age, what kind of worries and concerns might they start to articulate?

Justine Wilson  12:01  

If, for example, there's a loss of a parent, they might be really concerned about the other parent and what might happen to them and, you know, obviously concerned for their own health as well, potentially, as well as the parent that's left. So it can be that sort of thing, obviously, the really strong emotions that may come up as well, they may be worried for the future worried about themselves in terms of the context of the future, without that loved one being, as well. And of course, on the other hand, you have those sort of children that really won't share and won't talk about things. And that's part of them processing in their own way. And they may not want to upset their family member, they may not want to bring it up into conversation, because they don't want to be responsible for upsetting that person or making them worry. So they can take on that responsibility for being aware of the parents emotions and wanting to protect them as well.

Simon Currigan  13:00  

And then moving into the teenage years, what kind of understanding of death do adolescents have, because sometimes we can assume, because we've got what looks like a big person in front of us, they have a big level of understanding. And that's not always true.

Justine Wilson  13:10  

No, that's right. And I suppose in theory, where you would say that young people have got potentially an adult understanding at that stage. But what does that actually mean, you know, because our experiences of grief and bereavement and loss are shaped largely by what's gone before. So how does our family deal with grief and loss and bereavement? How do we talk about those things within our family unit? And growing up? You know, what is the experience of how people cope with those kinds of things? And so for each child, that's very different depending on their family situation, and how people have sort of dealt with it in the past, because we don't get those lessons do we in terms of how to grieve and what's usual and what to expect in those sorts of situations. But I think, again, if we're thinking about those sort of young people, in theory, they will be more aware of the finality, they will be aware of the impact on them for the future, living their life without that person in their life. And we mentioned already those sorts of questions around the meaning of life and what happens after you die, you know, those sorts of existential questions can come up as well. So there's a lot going on, and of course, they're moving into adulthood, and it's that sort of in between time almost of maturity. So you're right, I think there's a lot going on for that age group. And we can't assume because they look like an adult that they're able to cope with all that.

Simon Currigan  14:48  

Obviously each child is an individual, so their response to a death is going to be specific to them. 

Justine Wilson  14:54  


Simon Currigan  14:54  

But when it comes to bereavement, what kind of behaviours might be considered normal for a grieving child? and then what I'm driving at really is what kind of behaviours might highlight to us that the child isn't coping, there's a cause for concern, there might need some additional support? 

Justine Wilson  15:07  

I think certainly being emotional and showing the concern, they may be talking about the person that's died, they may want to go over time. And again, actually things that have happened so that they can sort of process and make sense of things, all of those things are quite normal. And all of the responses that we've previously spoken about can be considered to be normal. In terms of the grieving process, I guess the time to be concerned is if that is prolonged for, you know, a long period of time, and that it's beginning to impact on day to day coping day to day functioning in terms of, you know, it might be that it's really impacting on schoolwork and their ability to engage with education and just get through the day, sometimes, you know, if things are starting to feel really difficult, then it may be really helpful for them to have a bit of space to explore what's going on. And as I said already, it will really also depend on the support around them. So you know, if they have a support network, and people that they can talk to and family are very open and promoting the ability to access memories and share that information that can be really helpful. But for obviously, for other grieving parents or family members that might be really painful to support that. And it might be quite difficult to support the grieving child when you're grieving yourself. And so it's not always easy to offer that. So it's a combination of things really, I suppose that we would look for does this person needs support in terms of what was their behaviour like before the bereavement as well? So you know, are those things that we're seeing and observing now very different from the child we knew before their loss?

Simon Currigan  17:04  

When you think about the conversations you've had with the many children that you've supported. What were the sort of things that they said that their teachers or educators had done, or they wish that have done that are helpful to them? 

Justine Wilson  17:16  

Yeah, I think there is, as we know, a bit of a stigma still about talking about death and dying generally within society. And it's not an easy subject to broach. And I guess, you know, certainly for the young people that have attended, Edwards Trust. And we've made some films recently, actually, with some of our young people who have talked about the support that they had in schools and what they wished would have been in place, and actually what they experienced, and one of the things, I think, first of all, is just an acknowledgement of the loss. So, you know, rather than teachers not mentioning it at all, and pupils being unsure actually what people know. And whether other pupils know where the teachers know, it's just that open conversation of acknowledging that there has been a loss. And actually, it might be difficult at times. So that is definitely helpful. I think the ability to have someone to talk to about what's going on is really useful. And things like practical things actually, like a timeout card. So if a pupil feels that they're really struggling to have that facility to be able to just take a little bit of time out, and for it to be okay and be supported by school, I think is really, really valuable. Because one of the things about grief is that we don't actually know when things are going to impact on us. And it may be that emotion starts to rise and can hit us when we least expect it. And so I suppose from a school perspective, if we're alert to that, and we're supporting pupils, to be able to take some time out and acknowledge that that can happen. I think that's really helpful. Some of the activities that we do in class, obviously, if we're thinking about celebrating Father's Day, Mother's Day, other events that might be really significant in a child's life. And when they're sort of experience with family, it's worth thinking about the fact that that might impact on that particular child. And if we can give them a bit of advance warning that we might be looking at that subject, you know, in the next lesson, and, you know, how do they feel about it? Do they want to engage with it? You know, because we can't assume, for example, because dads died that a child might not want to make a Father's Day card, for example, because actually, that might be really helpful and they may want to do that they may want to take it to the grave, for example. So I think there's something about not making assumptions but having that dialogue and open conversation where at least so that pupils know that they can talk about what's going on for them if they feel the need to.

Simon Currigan  20:08  

In general, in those early days, who should be initiating those early conversations, should we as the adults be approaching the child to say, look, we know something's happened, and you know, we're here to support you? Or is it better to leave the child to come to you, but run the risk then that they feel that no one cares?

Justine Wilson  20:23  

I think I would certainly advocate for the first option there, Simon, which is let's have that conversation in terms of, you know, we know what's happened, we are aware of it. If you need some time out, if you need to talk, then that's okay. Because I think if we leave the onus on the child, then that can be difficult, actually, you know, we're asking people to be quite vulnerable, aren't we, in terms of this is what's happened, this might be really different from every other child's experience in this classroom. And that might be difficult for me to ask for what I need. So I think if the teachers taking the initiative, then I think that's, that's really helpful.

Simon Currigan  21:07  

What sort of things should we avoid saying and doing?

Justine Wilson  21:09  

I think there's something about simple and honest communication. So we can all be guilty actually, of using euphemisms when we're talking about death. So people might say, that person has gone to sleep, or they're watching over you, or they're in the stars. And it may feel like it softens the blow almost, and makes it easier for the child to kind of take on board. But I think for children, often they can take that literally. So you can find that children, for example, might struggle to want to go to bed and go to sleep if they've been told that someone's gone to sleep, because might feel really scary, actually. Or if they're told that somebody is lost, we've lost them. Where are they? Let's try and find them, you know, where? they must be somewhere? If we say that somebody is in a better place, what does that mean? And why can't we go and visit them? For example, you know, so I think our language, if we can think about the things that we say that can be really helpful, we want to try and make it better often don't we, when children are distressed and when they're upset? And so we can try and say things that sort of minimise what's going on. I know how you feel, you know, you need to be strong, those sorts of things, that it's not necessarily helpful, because what message are we giving the children there? Are we saying it's not okay, actually, to experience what you're feeling, and to be able to show that. So I think it's about, you know, thinking about the language we use, trying to be clear and simple in what we say, but don't be afraid to use dead or dying and the specific terms and I think part of the difficulty we have is that as adults, we can find it difficult to have those frank and honest conversations. So it can feel quite brutal to talk in that way to children. But as we know, they respond well to factual information. And they can cope with it as long as it's age appropriate language, and we don't necessarily overload them with information, it feels like that's the best approach.

Simon Currigan  23:27  

What would you say to a teacher or a teaching assistant who's got a child in their class, who's recently had a death in the family, and they want to support the child, but they're worried about saying the wrong thing? What would you advise them?

Justine Wilson  23:38  

I think, don't be afraid to open the conversation really. And as we've said, already take the initiative, I suppose to acknowledge what you know, and the fact that you're there and open to a conversation if they want that. And I think if children feel that they're listened to, and that there is time for them to talk, if they need to, then that's amazing. It's about offering opportunities to remember those opportunities to talk but also space if they need it, just to have a little bit of time away as well. I think it's being open. And I think it's being available and just being aware that their grief can surface at any time. So you know, maybe just a watchful eye at times as well. The other thing I would say, actually, for school staff generally is that this subject is difficult. And as we know, you know, most people do experience a loss at some point during their lives and for some school staff, they may also be experiencing their own personal issues or losses, and it may bring up things for them to and they may find that it's really difficult to be supporting the grieving child when perhaps have had their own losses when perhaps they're grieving themselves. So I would also say it's worth thinking about, am I the right person to support this child in their grief? Because I might have a lot going on myself and might find it difficult to be available. And you know, it might bring things up for me as well about the losses I have.

Simon Currigan  25:19  

You've mentioned lots of practical ideas to support kids. But if you're a teacher or a parent listening to this podcast, what's the first step you can take today to start supporting those pupils around the issues of death, grief and bereavement? You mentioned you've got some videos on your website, and you've got some resources? How can they get hold of those?

Justine Wilson  25:36  

There's quite a lot of resources in the videos, as I say. So if they just go to our website, which is They're all available on there.

Simon Currigan  25:46  

And I'll put a direct link to those in the show notes as well. Justine, we ask this of all our guests. Who is the key figure that's influenced you? Or what is the key book that you've read that's had the biggest impact on your approach to working with kids? 

Justine Wilson  25:58  

Yeah, I had to really think about this one, Simon. And when I looked back over the books I've read, the one that really stuck out for me was a book by Sue Gerhardt called Why love matters and how affection shapes a baby's brain. And I read this book about 12 or 13 years ago, now, it was around the time that I had my daughter, so I was pregnant at the time. And I was training to be a counsellor actually. And this book was quite amazing really to read in terms of how that affection that we provide to our children has such a bearing on how the sort of psycho pathology progresses within a child and emotionally how they grow. So it was quite a revelation, I suppose to read that in a book and to inform myself as a parent, but also myself as an emerging counsellor, really, and just how vital that emotional self is. And certainly supporting that in children feels like it's really important.

Simon Currigan  27:08  

Justine, it's a really difficult topic for many people. But I really appreciate you coming on the show today and sharing your experience and your knowledge so our listeners can support the kids in their classrooms. Thank you very much.

Justine Wilson  27:18  

Thank you, Simon. It's a pleasure. And thank you for inviting me.

Emma Shackleton  27:22  

Well that was a really important episode on a really challenging topic. And Justine gave us so many practical ideas and tips that we can use with the kids that we work with. 

Simon Currigan  27:33  

And if you're working with pupils who struggle with their emotions, we've got a range of resources to help you inside our Inner Circle. We've got video training on subjects like how to use emotional scaling, which is all about helping kids take action when they're experiencing strong emotions like anger or anxiety, how to coach people through strong emotions, which is a simple framework for teaching kids to manage big emotions themselves and not to overreact to situations and how to de escalate, which is our deep dive into successfully managing kids when they have lost control of their emotions or actions.

Emma Shackleton  28:08  

Right now you can get access to all of that training and over 28 other training modules with our Inner Circle membership, and you get your first seven days with just one pound, you can cancel your subscription at any time

Simon Currigan  28:22  

To take advantage of visit  and click on the big Inner Circle picture near the top of the page. I'll also drop a direct link in the show notes.

Emma Shackleton  28:32  

Do you know someone who would find today's interview helpful? If you do, then give them a hand by sending them a link to this podcast. In most podcast apps, you can do that by clicking on the share button next to this episode. Just sharing this episode with one or two colleagues could have a really positive impact on their lives and the lives of their pupils.

Simon Currigan  28:54  

And finally, if you enjoy today's episode, make sure you don't miss next week's by opening up your podcast app and hitting the subscribe button. Then your app will automatically download each and every episode so you never miss a thing. And on Apple that's now called the Follow button to celebrate your ascension as the king of podcasting tech. Well, why not fasten yourself a throne made of cardboard boxes and detailed with shiny strips of aluminium foil, write tech King on it in chunky marker pen and then invite the neighbours round to see you sit on your majestic new seat of power and explain that you're the tech King. Surely increasing your social status with everyone you meet.

Emma Shackleton  29:34  

Well, we hope you have a brilliant week and look forward to seeing you next time on school behaviour secrets. Goodbye for now.

Simon Currigan  29:41  


(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)