Grief unspoken


How to support children with SEN through bereavement and grief

Most adults struggle to find the right words to say to another adult who is grieving. When it is a child that is bereaved, they often try to avoid having any sort of conversation with them concerning the death. If the grieving child has SEN or a disability, the problem is exacerbated. A child with SEN tends to be enveloped by an even greater silence following a death. Theirs truly is an unspoken grief.

Early in my teaching career, I witnessed the devastating impact of a pupil’s death on their classmates and the school as a whole. I quickly realised that there was very little guidance on how to best support children with SEN with their grief. At times, the grief of these children was either ignored or not fully acknowledged, with many adults just not knowing how to deal with it.

Working in special schools for children with severe learning difficulties (SLD), profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) and complex needs, I experienced, on average, the death of one pupil a year. If a child joins a special school aged four, by the time they leave aged 16, there could well have been as many as 12 children that have died at that school. The child may not have known all of those children well, but the impact of those deaths will still be immense. How many of us experienced 12 deaths by the time we were 16?

UK educational statistics show that up to 70 per cent of schools have at least one bereaved pupil on roll at any one time. My personal experience suggests that all special schools will have at least one bereaved pupil on roll every day of every school year. This includes pupils who are bereaved due to the death of a family member, as well as those who have experienced the death of a class mate or friend at school. Following the death of a pupil, there will be times when whole classes and even the entire school community are grieving.

Children with SEN are more likely to be effected by grief at a younger age and in greater frequency than typically developing children, due to the nature of the medical conditions that some children in special schools have. Combined with the learning and communication difficulties that children with SEN often experience, this only strengthens the case for them having good bereavement education and support.

Understanding death

A child with SEN will find it hard to understand what death really means – in particular that death is forever. They may be unable to relate to the finality and permanence of death and so will often long for things to return to the way they were. Indeed, some children may never develop a full understanding of the conclusiveness of death. This does not mean, however, that we should leave them in a state of confusion with their bereavement.

A child who is bereaved will usually need:

  • answers to their questions
  • help in understanding the death
  • help to be involved, for example in the funeral, memorial service or special assembly at school
  • opportunities to talk in their own time
  • affection and extra reassurance.

When supporting children with SEN with bereavement you need to think about the developmental and cognitive age of the child, particularly in terms of what they will be able to understand and comprehend. You also have to take into consideration their receptive and expressive communication age. Other factors that will influence their understanding of death include previous life experiences and the family’s culture and beliefs, specifically in relation to death.

How to talk to children who are grieving:

  • use clear language.
    Explanations need to be basic, real and practical, with a very visual element. We cannot rely solely on words. Make use of all relevant modes of communication, including signing, symbols, photos and AAC.
  • always be open, honest and available.
  • use the appropriate words, not euphemisms. For example, use the words “dead” and “death” rather than “gone away” or “just sleeping”.
  • be patient. Be prepared to explain things over and over again, so that the child can process and accept the death.
  • when you have given the child information about the death and what will be happening next, regularly check that they have understood what you have told them, but do not repeatedly ask them “Do you understand?” Instead, check what they know through conversational routes. For example, if you have told them the funeral for the deceased is on Thursday, later on ask them if they remember what is happening on Thursday.

Key things to remember 
When working with children who have experienced death:

  • know the basic facts of how the person died so that you can answer the child’s questions
  • make sure the child is aware of the funeral or memorial service and is involved as much as they would like to be
  • if the child is unable to be involved in the formal “goodbye”, have a ritual to help them say goodbye at school, such as a special assembly, releasing a balloon or planting a tree
  • make time for physical outlets of expression
  • provide creative outlets for expression
  • maintain routines and structures, as far as possible.

Returning to everyday life

After a loss, children need to regain a sense of safety and stability. Before this can be achieved it is important to ensure that all of the child’s basic needs are met. The child’s usual routines should be re-established and support systems need to be put in place for the child, and for all those who are grieving, including parents/carers and school staff.

Emotional regulation skills should be taught and supported, for example relaxation and breathing techniques and how to ask for “time out”. It is also important at these times to provide lots of ordinary and familiar experiences for those who are grieving.

Children with SEN may communicate their grief differently, but grief is grief. Their grief is just as valid and powerful as anyone else’s and must never be overlooked, ignored or forgotten. Doing so will only leave them in a greater state of confusion and, as with anyone whose grief is neglected, this could have a serious detrimental impact on their emotional and psychological health.
A school curriculum that embeds the teaching of life and death across its subjects and across all year groups will be best placed to support children and staff with the bereavements that they experience. Children need to develop an understanding of what life and death is before they can accept and manage their feelings of loss and grief.

More articles on bereavement can be found here and here.

Sarah Helton
Author: Sarah Helton

Sarah Helton
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Sarah Helton has written two books about grief; Remembering Lucy, a story book for children with SEN and disabilities, and A Special Kind Of Grief, the complete guide for supporting individuals with special needs and disabilities with the issues of  bereavement and loss.


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