Support for if an adult volunteer dies
The death of someone important to us is challenging and different people will feel different things at different times, especially young people who may not have experienced direct loss before. These resources have been created to help support your group, provide advice and relevant signposting to further support for if the worst should happen.
Coronavirus is a global pandemic. Thousands of people, both young and old, have lost their lives, and millions have been affected. Now, more than ever, it’s important that we, as Scouts, rally around each other, show our Scout values and support one another.
If an adult volunteer in your group dies, it’s really important that all the adult volunteers in the group come together to support one another. By coming together, you’ll be able to address what’s happened and plan how best to support your young people, and each other. Other volunteers in your local area may also be able to help and share advice, so don't hesitate to reach out.
There’s no right or wrong way to feel following a bereavement and there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach to supporting someone who’s experiencing bereavement.
The grief cycle acts as a tool to identify where individuals may be on their grieving journey. It’s important to realise that each person’s journey is deeply personal and individuals may start at any of the five 'stages' and move backwards and forwards through stages as a result of internal thoughts, feeling and emotions, and external events. Some people may not go through all the stages, but everyone will display at least a few of the stages below.
There are many different ways to describe the grief cycle, but here are some of the most common stages that someone goes through following a loss:
Denial – The first reaction to learning about the loss of someone is often to deny the reality of the situation. This is a subconscious attempt to rationalise emotions and delay processing what’s really happened. Denial is considered a primitive defence mechanism and is exceptionally common. It’s used when an individual doesn’t want to admit or face up to difficult areas of their life. For most, this stage will last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Some individuals may choose to isolate themselves during this period in the belief that if they do so, the reality they’re facing may be untrue.
At Scouts, this might look like adult volunteers not discussing what’s happened or refusing to believe it’s true.
Anger – The second stage of grief/loss is anger. This is exceptionally complex and can come to light in many different ways. The anger someone expresses can be aimed at inanimate object, strangers, friends/family or even the person who has died. When someone displays anger towards the person who has died, a sense of guilt normally follows and this can lead to the individual becoming angry at themselves.
At Scouts, this might look like adult volunteers being angry at themselves, each other or the person who has died.
Bargaining – Bargaining, through the use of ‘if only’ statements, is a common reaction to the feeling of helplessness. Individuals may ask questions such as ‘If only we had done this differently,’ or ‘If only I did this to help.’ Individuals may feel a deep sense of guilt during this stage as they question what they could have done to prevent the situation from happening.
At Scouts, this might look like adult volunteers questioning why they didn’t do something or how else they could have helped.
Depression – Individuals may feel different over time and compared to other people. They may want to be alone or feel as though they need to be around others. For some individuals, they may worry about practical implications as a result of the death, such as how the group will continue to function or if someone suitable will be found to fill the role. This is more common in individuals who had a less personal relationship with the individual who has died.
Others may experience more emotional aspects of bidding farewell to a friend and fellow Scout. The depression stage is often more subtle and highly individual, some people will want to talk openly about how they are feeling, and others will want to distance themselves or avoid the conversation wherever possible.
At Scouts, this could look like adult volunteers worrying whether the group will still run normally/whether activities will still be the same, being visibly emotional and wanting to talk about what's happened, or avoiding the conversation wherever possible.
Acceptance – Everyone will arrive at this stage at a different time, some may arrive at acceptance within a matter of days or weeks, for others it may take several years. This stage is about accepting what’s happened – it doesn’t mean that the reality of what’s happened is ‘OK’ but it does mean that individuals can accept what’s happened as the new ‘normal’. Individuals may feel a deep sense of guilt when they begin to enjoy themselves again following the death of someone close to them. This can be particularly painful when taking part in an activity which the person who has died used to also enjoy.
As with anyone going through grief, the stages may merge together and not everyone will go through all of them. Someone with additional needs may experience confusion about why they no longer see the person who has died or have difficulty adjusting to why family members and friends are acting differently.
Supporting those with additional needs - In some cases, it may not always be obvious to recognise displays of grief in someone with additional needs, but changes in their behaviour may show that they’re experiencing confusion in addition to grief. Changes in behaviour can happen immediately or after several days, weeks or even months after the news of a death. The behaviours may ‘peak’ at significant times – for example holidays, Christmas or birthdays.
It’s important to judge the relationship the group had with the adult volunteer who has died. If the young people didn’t have a close relationship with them (if they were an executive committee member, for example) then it may not be a good idea to announce this to the group as a whole as it could trigger upset from individuals unnecessarily. Instead, if one or two young people in the group had a close relationship with the adult volunteer then it may be more beneficial to tell these young people individually and work to support them on a personal level.
If the young people had a very close relationship with the adult volunteer (for example a leader, assistant helper, etc) here’s some support to help you talk about it.
How to talk about the death of an adult volunteer
When talking about the death of an adult volunteer it’s crucial to use simple and direct language that’s appropriate to the age of the young people you’re speaking to. Euphemisms such as ‘we lost’ or the person ‘has gone to a better place’ should be avoided as these can cause confusion.
Below you’ll find some examples of how you could explain the death of an adult volunteer to the group. It’s important you mention how they died, but steer clear from any in-depth and upsetting details. Try to use wording such as ‘their heart stopped beating and their brain stopped working’ as opposed to going into any graphic detail.
For Beavers and Cubs:
‘All living things die someday. You all will have seen this when a flower dies or when an animal dies, which some of you may not have seen but you know it happens. Well, all people die one day too, when someone dies, their body stops working and they’re no longer able to move, talk or do the other things that they could when they were alive, like come to Scouts.
People mostly die when they are very, very old, but sometimes people can also die before they get very old, because of a serious illness or accident. Sadly, (name of adult) has died. This means that we won’t be able to see or talk to them anymore, but the memories that we have with them are safe forever in our minds and we should remember all of the happy times that we had with them.
We’re all going to miss (name of adult) every week, but it will get better. Beavers/Cubs is still going to happen every week, but it might feel a little different. (name of adult) really enjoyed being a leader and they would still love for us to do that and all the things we like to do, like go on camps etc. It’s fine to feel sad one week and then fine another – we can talk about it whenever you want to.
You may have lots of questions and we’ll try to answer as many of these as we can today. If we don’t know them, we’ll try and find out the answers for you. This is a very sad and upsetting time for us all and so it’s important we show our Scout values and be kind, more than ever.’
It’s important to make sure that young people feel supported through this time and that they’re able to cope with the death. Make sure that the links in ‘where to get further support’ are shared with young people and their parents.
For Scouts and Explorers:
‘Normally people only die when they are very, very old. But sometimes due to a serious illness or accident they can die before this. Sadly (name of adult) has died.
We know this will come as a shock to many of you and you may have lots of questions and we’ll try to answer as many of these as we can today. If we don’t know them, we’ll try and find out the answers for you. This is a very sad and upsetting time for us all and so it’s important we show our Scout values, now more than ever.
We’re all going to miss (name of adult) every week, but it will get better. Scouts/Explorers is still going to happen every week, but it might feel a little different. (name of adult) really enjoyed being a leader and they would still love for us to do that and all the things we like to do like go on camps etc. It’s fine to feel sad one week and then fine another.
If you’re struggling and feel like you want to talk to someone about what has happened there are many different charities and organisations that offer support.
It’s important to make sure that young people feel supported through this time and that they’re able to cope with the death. Make sure that the links in ‘where to get further support’ are shared with young people and their parents.
It’s important to keep parents/carers up to date on what’s happened and what you’re going to be covering at Scouts, so they’re prepared for any questions they may get from their young people. Here’s some example text for how to talk to parents about what has happened:
‘It’s with great sadness that we must announce the death of (name of adult).
As a group, we’re going to be speaking about this with the young people on (enter date). We’re going to focus on what’s happened and how we can mark our happy memories and celebrate the life of (name of adult).
We’d like to reassure you all that Beavers, Cubs, Scouts and Explorers are still going to be running as usual and we’re going to be doing our best to make sure everything runs as normally as possible. Any help that you could offer in running the section night during this difficult time would be greatly appreciated.
If your young person is finding the news particularly upsetting, further support and guidance links are on the right hand side of this page.
You should always check how much the young people have understood and answer any questions openly, honestly and clearly. You should always reassure young people (particularly very young people), that it’s not their fault that someone has died, that they’re not to blame and that it doesn’t mean it will happen to them. Some young people won’t feel comfortable asking questions in front of the group – why not have a questions box in the room where people can write down anything they feel uncomfortable asking in front of the group?
An individual with additional needs may have lots of questions and want to know all of the details about what has caused the person to die and why this is the case. You should try to answer as many of these questions as possible and if you don’t know an answer, be open about this and say you’ll find out and tell them the next time you see them.
It’s also important to be mindful of the language used when discussing the death of the adult volunteer, where possible turns of phrase should be avoided. Using a phrase such as ‘they went to sleep’ or ‘we lost’ may be taken literally, resulting in the autistic young person becoming more scared and confused. Scouts often describe someone who has died as having ‘gone home’ by using the tracking symbol. This can be confusing for young people with additional needs and so it’s important to make sure that they understand this means they’ve died and not literally gone home. A potential way to explain this is to say ‘Baden Powell who created the Scouts was a Christian and used to believe that everyone’s spirit went home to heaven when they died’.
The group may have people from many faiths and include those without a faith. It’s crucial to use your judgement when explaining this to make sure that it’s inclusive for everyone.
You could create a ‘comic strip conversation’ with a young person with additional needs to explain what’s happened and why people are acting in a certain way. This can be really useful to help young people understand theirs and others’ emotions.
A comic strip conversation should:
- Have a specific and clear goal
- Be interesting, relevant and contain accurate information
- Answer where, when, what, why and how
- Be very descriptive and use positive language.
Comic strip conversations are written in sentence format and are made up of seven basic sentences:
Perspective sentences – These sentences refer to or describe the internal state of other people: their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, motivations etc. This helps people with additional needs learn how others perceive events. For example: My friend is happy when we play football.
Descriptive sentences – These sentences are free from assumption and opinion and are completely factual. For example: Some of you may know this already, but this might be hard for some of you to hear – George has died, that means we won’t see him at Scouts.
Directive sentences – These sentences present (in a positive way) a response or choice of responses to a situation. For example: I’m going to share my toys with my friend who’s sad to make them feel happier.
Control sentences – Identifies personal strategies the person creating the comic strip conversation will use to remember the information they’ve learned in their conversation. For example: I will ask my friends how they are and listen to their response.
Affirmative sentences – These sentences enhance the meaning of statements and may make reference to a shared value/belief. For example: I will ask my friends how they are and listen to their response. It’s very important to respect other people.
Co-operative sentences – These sentences help people to understand the role played by others in an activity. For example: I feel very sad, my parents/carers or Scout leader can help me to feel better.
Partial sentences – These are partially incomplete sentences that encourage people to determine a positive response to a situation. For example: My friends feel sad, I could…
Partial sentences are only recommended when an individual has a good level of understanding of social situations and how they’re handled.
Comic strip conversation top tips
- For every directive or control sentence, there should be two to five co-operative, descriptive, perspective and/or affirmative statements.
- Focus on one topic – don’t stray into several as this could make the story become confusing.
- Base the characters on the person you’re writing the story with/for – make the other characters people they know and see.
- Work on the story as soon as possible with the person you’re writing it with/for, this will help them to use the story to show positive behaviour in the future.
- Make sure the story is positive and can be used to fight negative emotions/situations. The characters in the story should be understanding and patient.
Suicide is the act of someone deliberately taking their own life. Bereavement through suicide will be a different experience for the group and likely bring different emotions and responses from young people and adults alike.
If someone in the group has died through suicide it’s really important not to attach blame to the person who has died. The group should treat what’s happened as if they’d died through any other cause.
If there’s been a suicide in your group it’s important to inform the Scouts safeguarding team as soon as possible – on 0208 433 7164 or at firstname.lastname@example.org – so they can provide further support to you and the group.
How to tell the group – When telling the group about a death through suicide it’s important to judge the level of detail that’s appropriate. With Beavers and Cubs, it would be appropriate to say that the person has ‘died’ and not go into detail that this was through suicide. Young people of Beaver or Cub age will probably not be aware of suicide and so it’s important to safeguard them from this if possible.
For Scouts and Explorers, it may be appropriate to go into further detail about what’s happened and let them know that the person has died through suicide. It’ll be vital to make sure that the group are supported when hearing this news and that they feel as though they can have open conversations about mental health. You’ll need to make sure that any negative language about mental health (for example, people being classed as ‘crazy’ or ‘mad’) is addressed quickly and that negative stereotypes (such as people with bad mental health being ‘weak’) aren’t reinforced.
For parents/carers – As with any bereavement, you should always make sure that parents/carers of all young people in the group are happy with your plans and are aware, well ahead of time, about what you’re going to be discussing.
Particularly when talking about suicide, it’s important that parents/carers are aware of specialised further support links they can access if they’re concerned for their young person, these include: Samaritans and Papyrus.
Marking what’s happened – Marking what’s happened should focus on the positives and good times that the group have had with the person during their life.
Support for the group – The group may feel a sense of guilt that the person who died through suicide didn’t come to them for support; it’s important to reassure the group that they’re not to blame for what’s happened and that it’s not their fault. The safeguarding team at Scouts will be able to offer further support to leaders in the event of a bereavement by suicide.
Further support - Bereavement through suicide may bring about thoughts, feelings and questions regarding suicide, self-harm and death that you can’t answer. If anyone is finding the news particularly difficult to deal with and it's affecting their daily life, they could see their NHS GP to access further support.
However, there may be a long wait to access these services and not everyone will want to speak to a GP about what's happened. The following further support links should also be made available to all members of the group and parents/carers too.
- Samaritans - 116 123 – https://www.samaritans.org/
- The Samaritans also offer a suicide response service, specifically designed to help equip groups to respond and recover from bereavement through suicide – http://www.samaritans.org/your-community/supporting-schools
- Papyrus – 0800 068 4141 – https://papyrus-uk.org/
If the young people didn’t have a close relationship with the adult volunteer, then it may be a case of the rest of the adult volunteers coming together to remember the person who has died. This could be done in a variety of ways, including:
- A memorial service – all adult volunteers could come together to share stories of the person who has died and unite to honour their memory.
- A physical mark (memorial sign, bench etc.) – the group could explore the possibility of placing a physical mark to remember the person who has died.
- Posthumous award – if the adult volunteer has been involved with the group for a long time, the group could explore a posthumous award. Choose a relevant award to that person or why not explore a ‘memorial award’.
If the young people had a close relationship with the adult volunteer then it’s important to make sure the young people come together to take part in an activity to mark what’s happened and celebrate the life of the person who has died.
The group could create a memory box which contains letters, photographs and objects to help them remember the happy times they had with the adult volunteer who has died.
The box – The box should be something nice (avoid a shoebox or similar) and sturdy that will keep everything safe for years to come. Why not try a local charity shop for a wooden box or ask your young people to help design and make one?
Letters – The group could all write a letter to the adult who has died. It could contain their favourite memory together and something they liked about spending time with them.
Photographs – If you have any photographs of the adult who has died, you could write down when and where these were taken and put them into the box.
Objects – If the adult who died particularly liked certain things (fishing, sewing, craft etc.) you could put their favourite objects into the memory box.
Keep the box safe and make it available for young people to look through when they’re missing the person and want to remember the happy times they had together.
Create a ‘memory wall’
The group could (with permission from the building owner) create a memory wall at your Scout meeting place. This wall could be used on a section night to create a ‘living memory’ project for the person who has died. On the wall, you could:
- Draw/paint pictures of happy memories you have with the adult volunteer and stick these to the wall.
- Stick photos of the adult volunteer enjoying Scouts.
- Write down all the best things about the person and your favourite memories and stick these to the wall.
- Once the wall is complete, why not ask everyone to share what they put on the wall and the best memory they have of the person who has died? (Make sure everyone feels comfortable to share).
At the end of the evening, be sure to take lots of photos of the memory wall before you take it down so that you and your young people can reflect back on everything that was on it.
Ask your young people
The young people in your group may have their own ideas on how they’d like to mark the death of the adult volunteer. Why not keep a box somewhere in the room to collect these?
Always make sure the person’s family are happy with your plans, taking the time to talk them through what you want to do and allowing them the time to ask any questions they may have. These activities can be a trigger for young people, and so make sure that you’re constantly assessing the mood of the group and providing further support to young people if necessary.
It's really important to remember that different faiths and cultures will have different responses to grief and have their own traditions and ways of marking death. When discussing death with your group, or planning an activity to mark what has happened, make sure you take this into account and respect everyone's beliefs/traditions.
Where to get further help and support
If you or anyone in the group feels as though grief and sadness is impacting on daily life, talking to a GP can help. They may refer you to a local mental health support service or bereavement counselling.
Not everyone will want to speak to their GP and for those who do, they may find there is a long delay between seeking help and receiving it. There are several charitable organisations which exist to support those who are going through bereavement or feeling anxious or down. These include:
Child Bereavement UK supports families and educates professionals when a baby or child of any age dies or is dying, or when a child is facing bereavement.
Hope Again is a website from Cruse bereavement care, specifically for young people who have been bereaved or are facing grief and loss.
Winston's Wish is a childhood bereavement charity in the UK. The charity offers a wide range of practical support and guidance to bereaved children, their families and professionals.
Grief Encounter is a Child Bereavement Charity. They support children and their families through the pain caused by the death of someone close to them.
The National Autistic Society have a directory of specialist autism counsellors who are available to support autistic people through bereavement and grief.
The Young Minds crisis line is a free 24/7 support service for young people facing a mental health crisis.