It's not bad to be sad

Be aware of how young children grieve - it won't be as you expect, writes Elaine Williams

Very young children cope with bereavement in a way adults do not often understand. As the nation mourns the loss of Diana, Princess of Wales, parents and nursery workers are finding that under-fives have their own way of expressing grief.

Children at the Floral Place nursery in Islington wanted to write letters to the Princess and one three-year-old asked, "Why is Diana sad?" The feelings are there, though the comprehension may not be.

For young children who lose somebody close, to them such as a parent, sibling or grandparent, feelings and behaviour are likely to be extreme though far removed from adult expectations of what the grieving process should be.

Tracy Wilkes-Green, who manages Floral Place, says some children become noisy and aggressive - others are introverted and withdrawn. Some regress and revert to bed-wetting. At such times children have to be given space "to just be", as well as encouraged to talk and express themselves openly. Nursery might be the place where children feel they can show their grief away from home, possibly by "making a mess" with paints or "chucking clay around" to work out anger and frustration. On the other hand, it might be the one place where they feel they don't have to be sad.

Paula Alexander's children were three and five and attending the Pen Green Centre for the Under-Fives in Corby, Northamptonshire, when James, their father, died of bronchial pneumonia and influenza at the age of 30. "I was brutally honest but it was the only way," she says. "My son who was three went back to bedwetting and I just let that happen, I didn't make an issue of it. At nursery he kept taking things to the sandpit, burying them and digging them up to bring them back to life again. Then he'd say out of the blue: 'My daddy's dead'. You have to pay close attention to what they are trying to express. The nursery did a lot of work with him through play."

Paula, a former librarian, also used stories about bereavement such as Badger's Parting Gift and John Burningham's Grandpa. "These stories became a springboard into how they were feeling," she says.

Margy Whalley, director of research development and training at Pen Green, a multi-disciplinary centre run by teachers, health and social workers, says surprising numbers of young children are affected by the death of a close relative. Their reactions have now become the focus of much staff training. "We are looking for the non-verbal keys to how that child is feeling. They are anarchic with their emotions but we have to respect that and let them express themselves."

Dr Richard Woolfson, child psychologist and author, says the grief of young children can become marginalised, and that while adults try to move on "there is no such urgency in children. You tell them the news and their immediate reaction is to go and play, but it all takes time to work through. One minute a three-year-old will say Granny's dead and the next minute will ask you not to forget to set a place at table for her."

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