Supporting a bereaved child through exam season

April 2024

This Stress Awareness Month, our friends and Full Circle Partners Winston’s Wish have shared their advice on how adults can support grieving children and young people through the exam season. 

Exams can be difficult for many students the best of times. But it can feel extra difficult and stressful for young people who are grieving at the same. Struggling to think clearly, take information in, access memory recall and finding it hard to concentrate are all ‘normal’. For other grieving students, exams can be a great focus and are a way of feeling like they have control after their worlds are turned upside down by grief. 

1.         Don’t make assumptions

Start a conversation with the young person to find out how they feel and what support they want from you and/or others. Ask them: 

  • How do you feel about the exams?
  • Do you have any worries about them?
  • If you do, what might help?

If they identify fears and/or worries, offer suggestions “can I suggest….? (grounding techniques), how do you feel about giving this a go?” 

2.         Revision

Short bitesize revision sessions of up to 20 minutes, followed by a 10-minute break, will be more effective in aiding memory retention than solid revision for hours at a time. It is important to give the brain time to process information and not to overwhelm it, otherwise this is more likely to cause the student to feel frustrated and disheartened. 

Help them to identify things that calm and relax them, things that they enjoy and that bring them joy, purpose and satisfaction. Help them to identify things that help them to feel safe, which they can do before the exams, between exams, or as they get ready to go to sleep. These don’t have to be big things, often it’s the ordinary things that can be most helpful. Consider trying to involve as many of the five senses as you can – things that they can look at, touch/hold, taste, smell, and listen to, which they identify as bringing them a sense of calmness and comfort. 

Practice some grounding techniques that they could use before and during their exams if they start to feel overwhelmed and stressed. This could be a breathing exercise – inhaling and counting to four, holding the breath for the count of four and breathing out to a count of six. Picturing their ‘happy place’ and affirmations such as “I’m safe” work well too. It’s always useful to practice these before exams start, so they can call upon these techniques when they feel they need it most.

3.         Encourage self-care

Help your child to plan treats or things that they can look forward to after each exam, between exams, and after the whole exam experience. 

4.         Keeping their person close during exams

For some young people, it is very important to them to feel connected to the person who has died whilst they are sitting an exam. This could be by wearing a piece of jewellery that belonged to the person who died, by spraying their person’s perfume or aftershave on their sleeve or even wearing a pair of their socks! 

Remember, not everyone will want to wear or carry something that reminds them of the person who has died during their exam, and that’s ok! The key is to ask them what it is they feel most comfortable doing.  

5.         After exams

If your child doesn’t feel that their exam has gone well, it’s important to listen, accept, and validate their feelings. Encourage them to see each exam as a separate opportunity and to give each one a go. If one exam doesn’t go well at the start of the exam timetable, this doesn’t mean that all exams will go the same way. 

Offer reassurance, if needed there are options for re-sits. 

If a student isn’t motivated to do exams, and does not appear to care about them, don’t tell them off or punish them. Recognise that everyone’s motivation and drive for exams will differ, and that it’s understandable that a grieving child can lose their motivation and can’t see the value in sitting exams when the worst thing has happened to them. 

6.         Reach out to Winston’s Wish

If you’re struggling to find the right words or want some guidance on how to approach conversations about exams with your child, Winston’s Wish can help. Their Bereavement Support Workers can provide instant support over the phone, on email or via live chat. 

You can reach out between 8am and 8pm, weekdays, on:

·       Freephone 08088 020 021

·       Email

·       Chat on (click the blue chat button on the bottom right of the screen)