'Lost for words' - have things changed?

The findings published for Children’s Grief Awareness Week 2019 show that many of today’s bereaved children are ‘lost for words’.

More than one in four 11 year olds whose mum or dad has died say they keep their worries to themselves. They are less likely to talk to someone at home about their worries than those children whose parents are both alive.

While many young people find their friends a fantastic source of support, others feel lonely and isolated and some even get bullied because of their bereavement. Many young people report finding it difficult to explain their grief to friends who haven’t faced something similar. And their friends can find it hard too – not knowing what to say, not wanting to make things worse, and ending up saying nothing at all.

That’s why the theme of ‘Lost for Words’ had such resonance for Children’s Grief Awareness Week this year. But the theme isn’t new – it was first coined in relation to bereaved children by educational psychologist Dr John Holland in his ground-breaking research in the 1990s. Here, John gives us an insight into his findings.

I have worked with schools, bereavement and children for many years. ‘Iceberg’ was my doctoral research, interviewing adults who had experienced the death of a parent during their childhood.

Many children felt isolated and confused; their family was often chaotic and emotionally ‘unavailable’. It was similar in schools, many had little support, children felt ignored, isolated, some were even bullied. Schools often lacked the confidence to engage with children, being ‘lost for words’.

Key moments included the funeral and return to school. No child regretted attending the funeral; many who were forbidden to go had long term regrets about this

Learning from Iceberg

John published his findings in a book: ‘Understanding the experiences of bereaved children’. This led to Lost for Words, a training pack for school. He said

The focus was to empower staff to respond after a parental death, providing a ‘haven’ for children. The pack encouraged schools to develop policies and procedures, such as a carefully planned and supported return to school.

Key tips

The findings from John’s interviews gave some important ‘ponder points’ in thinking about how best to support bereaved children

  • Funerals: ask children if they want to attend, offer prior support.
  • Acknowledgements: Saying “I’m sorry ” is a powerful positive..
  • Plan a careful return to school, ask what would help, monitor progress.
  • Euphemisms: Be careful. Saying that the deceased is ‘lost’ or ‘asleep’, may confuse and frighten children.
  • Technical language: Provide explanations in language that the child can understand. Children may wonder how a heart can be ‘attacked’, how a ‘stroke’ can kill.


For more information about Iceberg and the Lost for Words training pack, visit www.john-holland-ep.co.uk