Author: Judith Mulligan

For anyone who has been bereaved ‘grief bursts’ are probably very familiar, even if the term itself isn’t. It refers to the flood of feelings of grief that can be triggered suddenly and felt very intensely. The ‘burst’ can seem to come out of nowhere, or can be connected to an occasion, situation or specific memory. People tell us that it can be linked to a strong sensory trigger such as a smell, piece of music, picture or other image, even the taste or the touch of something, but sometimes there is no identifiable trigger for it. 

Children and young people can find this quite frightening at times, especially the randomness of it. The feeling is so strong and so sudden they worry about being overwhelmed. What if it won’t stop? What if they will always feel like it? Does it mean there’s something wrong with them when it is still happening years after a death? 

We reassure children and young people, and their families that it is a very ‘normal’ grief response. Our memories of people are often strongly linked to our senses; the scent they usually wore, their favourite song, the feel of certain fabrics they liked to wear, as well as to particular events. It is common for young people to feel the loss of someone very strongly on certain days too; their birthday, the birthday of the person who died, the anniversary of their death, holidays and festivals, life events such as exam results, prom, going to college or getting your first job. If a child or young person has identified some triggers and know when it is more likely to happen, they can plan for difficult situations. Perhaps they can put together a ‘calm’ box  of things they know help them when they are feeling sad or distressed. 

However, it is just as normal to find that there is no link or trigger. Grief bursts just sometimes happen. They may continue for years, into adulthood, but may become less intense over time; they may stop for a while but then come back. We advise children and young people, and their families, to accept that grief bursts may happen, and they may not know when they will happen or why. Sometimes just understanding what it is and that it is normal can help; to recognise that it will feel strong in the moment, but it will pass. Each time it happens, and a young person gets through it, is proof that they can manage it and it isn’t something they need to be scared of. They can even plan some things to do when it happens, or for afterwards that help them, for example breathing techniques, comforting objects to hold or fiddle with (see emotional regulation blog).  

Some young people tell us that they can even find grief bursts reassuring. It reminds them of how much they loved the person who died, and that they haven’t forgotten them. 

You may find it useful to read our other blogs such as ‘Continuing Bonds’ for more information on grieving over time.