This page is part of a traumatic bereavement guide, which supports school and college communities working with children and young people. Download the complete guide here.
Specific information and guidance on traumatic bereavement for practitioners can be found here.
Overview of the definition and the impact on children and young people.
Identifying and understanding the impact of traumatic bereavement is a challenge. On this page we introduce traumatic bereavement, how it is different from more typical grief, and address some frequent questions about the topic.
In a traumatic bereavement, how the child or the young person experiences or understands the death – the meaning they make of it – results in it being experienced as traumatic.
The trauma gets in the way of the typical process of grief and blocks the child or young person’s ability to process the loss.
A child can experience traumatic bereavement at any age. Any type of death can result in a traumatic bereavement. Traumatically bereaved children and young people experience significant distress and difficulties, over and above a more typical grief. It is vital that these children are identified and given the appropriate help and support.
Why is meaning-making so important?
The video “When a bereavement is traumatic: meaning-making” introduces what traumatic bereavement is and what schools and colleges can do to help.
What do we mean by meaning-making and why is it so important? Well, meaning-making explains why the same event can have a very different impact on different people because they see it differently. They have a different understanding of it. It has different meaning for them.
So, for example, if you are lying in bed and you hear a noise in the kitchen, if you think that this is a burglar who’s coming to my house, that is likely to make you afraid or fearful or anxious and likely to elicit a certain response. If you think that this is the cat and it’s come home late, you might think: “Well I’m really glad he’s home safely” and that might make you reassured and happy. Or, you might think: “I wonder what is knocked over in the kitchen, which might make you quite angry. You might get up and go and clear up the mess.
So, the same event, but because you thought about it differently, you’ve made a different meaning of it — it’s led to a different emotional reaction and a different response for you.
So, we’re really interested to work out what do events mean for people. How does the same event affect different people and, in particular, does it change the way they see things? Does it change the way they see things in a lasting way and in a broad way?
So, a single event might affect the way that people see themselves. It might affect the way they see other people and it might affect the way that they now see the world.
So, when we think about traumatic bereavement, we’re particularly interested in how has that death coloured the way the young person sees themselves. For example, if they feel that they are now alone, it makes sense they would have to fend for themselves. If they now believe that they themselves are vulnerable, then they may need to take steps to make sure that they are really safe. If they now see that other people are unreliable, it makes sense that they would not want to trust people. If they see other people as dangerous, it makes sense that they will protect themselves and other people. If they see that now that the world is unpredictable, or that their lives are perilous and short, that might change the way that they behave and change the way they believe.
The thing about meaning-making is that it’s hidden. Most children young people do not immediately tell us the sense they’ve made of events. What we see and what you see in the classroom is their reaction and their behaviour. So what we need to do is instead of asking the question: “What’s wrong with them? What’s the problem that they’ve got?” Let’s start asking the question: “What’s happened to them?” Or even better: “How has what’s happened to them affected the way they see themselves and other people?” Because then we’ll start to really understand the problems that they’ve got and then we can start to really help them.
How is traumatic bereavement different to more typical grief?
Children and young people, like adults, can experience a broad range of emotions when grieving. Although they can be intense and difficult to manage at times, typically the emotions do not impact everyday life persistently.
Young people often grieve in puddles, dipping in and out of their grief, experiencing strong feelings and then going off to do their usual things in between.
For most children and young people, as they come to understand the death of someone close to them and how they feel about it, the intensity and frequency of difficult emotions reduce and they learn to live with their loss.
In traumatic bereavement, children and young people experience very strong emotions because of the meaning they make of the death. Feelings such as fear, anxiety, guilt, anger or shame block their ability to grieve and adapt to their loss. This often comes with upsetting and overwhelming images, thoughts, and sensations which appear in their minds and bodies in a way that feels out of their control. This can result in difficulties in behaviour and relationships which impact everyday life persistently, in school as well as elsewhere.
The grief becomes more like a well than a puddle and much harder to step out of.
These metaphors and descriptions can help us to notice how a child or young person is responding after a death as we try to identify traumatic bereavement. However, these are not completely distinct categories and developing an understanding of the child or young person’s individual response will take time.
Do the circumstances of the death lead to traumatic bereavement?
Circumstances such as a sudden or violent death or death by suicide can increase the likelihood of traumatic bereavement.
Research tells us that restrictions such as those imposed during the coronavirus pandemic can make a bereavement more likely to be traumatic, for example, not being able to say goodbye or attend a funeral .
In situations like a pandemic, where there may be a great deal of uncertainty, it can be more difficult for a child or young person to make sense of a death and for the adults around them to give them accurate information. Research also tells us that if a child is not given the facts about a death, they may ‘fill in’ the missing information by imagining what happened . Without the facts, it is more likely that the meaning the child or young person makes of the death will be confusing or frightening and they are more likely to experience the death as traumatic.
Do previous experiences make it more likely that a bereavement will be traumatic?
Some prior experiences may make it more likely a child will experience a bereavement as traumatic. These include:
Neglect or abuse
Domestic or community violence
Loss of birth family
Poverty and deprivation
War or displacement
Mental health problems
Neurodevelopmental or learning difficulties
However, it is important to remember that some children and young people in these circumstances or with these previous experiences will not experience a bereavement as traumatic. Similarly, some children and young people with none of these experiences, will experience a bereavement as traumatic.
You can watch the intro animation, read highlights from this guide and watch the supplementary videos here.