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How an app is helping with childhood bereavement

CEO of Nelson's Journey wearing suit

Simon Wright, Chief Executive of Nelson’s Journey

Grieving children and young people have been hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic. Covid restrictions have kept them apart from the support of their friends and family, and many have been unable to attend the funerals of their loved ones. Some of those bereaved during lockdown haven’t had the opportunity to see their special person towards the end of their life. These complexities have driven an increase in need for specialist bereavement support.

Nelson’s Journey provides support to children in Norfolk after the death of a significant person. We work with young people up to the age of 18, providing a range of different services that help to address their own challenges such as managing and understanding their feelings, and holding on to their memories of someone who died.

For the children and families we support, grieving has become ever more complicated due to restrictions. While planning our response to more complex bereavement needs, we’ve also had to review our services to ensure that what we offer is safe for our service users, volunteers and staff.

Covid restrictions have resulted in significant changes to many services, but we’ve also seen a new significance to other activities and resources such as our interactive smartphone app, Smiles & Tears.

The Smiles & Tears app was created five years ago by our young volunteers, many of who are former Nelson’s Journey service users. Their vision was to provide a range of on-screen activities that young people could access on their phone at any time of day to help them remember their special person and to manage their thoughts and feelings.

Children in Need provided the vital funding and support that we needed to develop the app as a free download for iOS and Android devices. It was launched as the world’s first interactive child bereavement smartphone app and it remains the only app of its type. There have now been more than 6,000 downloads by users from around the world.

Since the first lockdown in March 2020, our Smiles & Tears App has had an even more significant impact due to the growth in need and appetite for technology based support and resources. Our bereavement support workers have been able to help families to make the most of these resources. For one family who were unable to attend a funeral due to restrictions, our app allowed the children to mark the day through a virtual balloon release on their phones and this encouraged the family to talk together about the memories of their special person.

Nelson’s Journey has developed a range of tools to support our service delivery since the outbreak of Covid. Our bereavement support workers lead online 1:1 sessions and group activities, and they’ve delivered interactive child bereavement awareness training online to professionals working with children and young people in far greater numbers than possible ‘in real life’.

The experience of developing and offering our Smiles & Tears app prior to Covid gave the charity confidence to be creative, to innovate and to explore how technology can successfully support the bereavement needs of children and young people. Five years after launch, the benefits of the app are felt both by its many users, and also by all of us at the charity as we continue to use the experience to plan and develop services relevant for today’s bereaved children and young people.

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