Helping children through death – Penhaligon’s Friends

I wanted this month to draw everyone’s attention to a local Cornish charity that is working hard to help children when they have suffered a bereavement. I have recently completed some training with them to give me a deeper understanding of grief and bereavement for children.

Professionals and families can contact Penhaligon’s Friends for advice and support, and they offer many different services in Cornwall. For example, they may work directly with schools, but they also offer memory days for families to come to when they remember a person that has died. This day consists of a range of creative activities to help remind adults and children that they are not alone in suffering a loss and that even though a few years may have past, they still hold on to the memories of that special person.

In some cases, Penhaligon’s Friends may be able to offer some advice to parents and carers when a family member has been given a terminal diagnosis and feel they need help to share this information with a child.

Death does quite often seem a taboo subject when it comes to children. I know when I was teaching and the rites of passage would come up in RE, such as birth, weddings and death, death was often the most difficult part of this to teach. As a nation it is more acceptable to celebrate, be happy and look for the positive attributes in life. Trying to talk to children about death, provokes quite often the complete opposite - sadness, tears and possibly anger, and so many teachers find it easier to skirt around this difficult subject.

Families all have their own ideas/beliefs surrounding death and this too needs to be respected. However, it is important to make sure that whatever you tell children it is clear without leaving them with any ambiguity. For example, telling a child that the person has gone to sleep and won’t wake up, could actually have them believing that going to sleep is the reason for the death and could scare them about going to sleep. Be honest with them. If they are old enough to ask the question, ‘why did they die? ,’ then try your best to explain it to them in language they will understand.

For any child having to deal with a death of a family member or friend it is difficult, just the same as it is for an adult. Sometimes though children get passed by when adults are themselves trying to manage the grief that they are experiencing. It takes everyone time to grieve for someone, and different people grieve in different ways. Just because someone is not crying every minute of the day, doesn’t mean that they aren’t suffering. Some parents believe that a funeral is not the place for a child, that it will upset them more. However, for some children being involved with the funeral, and experiencing what their loved ones are also experiencing can help them make sense of everything, knowing they are not alone in their sadness, and help them cope better with the feelings of grief.

It is normal for children and adults to grieve. It is important to allow the child time to process their feelings and hopefully with the right support from their family and community they may become more resilient and feel better able to manage their grief For some children though, this is a difficult thing to do and they may need more support from outside agencies with specialist training like Penhaligon’s Friends.

Penhaligon’s Friends offer immediate advice and guidance over the telephone and at some point they may arrange to visit a family. From meeting the family Penhaligon’s Friends may invite them to be involved in group activities or one to one sessions, using creative activities to help them process and express their feelings of grief. For example, painting what your feelings look like, or reading fiction stories about animals that involved death. For some children, they may need even more long term support than this, and this is when I as a play therapist can help. Penhaligion’s Friends staff and volunteers are trained to recognise when this may be needed and will always advise families if this is necessary.

Death and loss may be scary and emotional for many adults to face, but it is important to talk to children about it as they grow up. The more they are prepared for it, the better they will respond and prove resilient at a time of need. Having pets and acknowledging the death in a warm and sensitive way can help children have an experience that they can relate to when the death of a person in their life happens, be that grandparent, sibling, parent or friend.

Also experiencing the loss of a favourite teddy, bag, or item of clothing, for example can also be very upsetting for a child and should be responded to with sensitivity. My youngest daughter at the moment is very sensitive about the fact she will be leaving her junior school to move to secondary school in September. She quite often says she doesn’t want to think about it and she knows she is going to cry. I had begun by saying, ‘oh well, you’ll have lots of great new experiences at your new school,’ but I soon realised that I needed to acknowledge her feelings of losing somewhere she feels safe, looked after and cared for and has been a huge part of her life for 5 years. Yes, she may have fun at her new school but she will need to grieve for what she has lost too, and that is okay.

If you would like to find out more about Penhaligon’s Friends then please go to or visit their Facebook Page.

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