Bereavement in a family is a very difficult time for all and causes many feelings including sadness, shock, anxiety, anger and loneliness. As adults, we can find it very difficult to cope with these feelings but we have the benefit of understanding death, talking with friends and family and perhaps having experienced death before. For children however, this may be their first encounter with death and they can find it very hard to understand what happened, how it happened, what is going to happen to the person who has died and what is going to happen in the future.
How we tell our child about the death, how we help them to cope with the news and answer questions and how we support them through the ceremonies are important and can be very challenging for parents when we too are suffering from grief. In this article, we look at some key factors and opportunities for parents to help their children to deal with bereavement and grief.
How to tell your child
Perhaps the most difficult task of all is telling your child about the death of a close relative or friend of the family. They will have many questions and how you answer is important in helping your child to understand and cope with the bereavement.
When speaking to your child, try to use straightforward and simple language. Don’t be afraid to use the word ‘dead’ – it is a simple word which will avoid misunderstandings later. Sometimes when children hear the words “we lost granny” or “granny is gone to sleep”, it can cause confusion and hope that maybe you will find the person or they will wake up in the future.
Explain to your child what death is. When someone is alive, they breathe, eat, feel, their heart beats and they wake up after they sleep. When someone is dead, they stop breathing, their heart stops beating and they don’t feel anything anymore. The body has stopped working. It is also important to stress that they don’t feel pain anymore.
If you can link the death to a previous experience of death for the child, that will help them to understand. For example, if a pet died in the past, you could say that it is similar – the pet’s body stopped working in the same way as the recently deceased.
If possible, a parent or a very closely connected adult should tell the child and should be physically with them when they do so. This person can reassure the child that they are not alone and that they can talk about their feelings or ask any questions that they need answered at any stage. A hug to allow the child to feel secure and support them in their reaction to the news is invaluable.
Keep connected and be prepared.
When you tell your child about death, it can be a huge amount of information for them to absorb. It is important therefore that you are available as much as possible to chat about the death with them. Encourage them to talk about how they feel and to continue to ask questions.
You may find that your child will ask questions that they have asked already and so you need to be prepared to repeat the information to the child. This is your child’s way of absorbing the information and making sense of what happened.
Try to answer questions and give as much information (as is age appropriate) to your child. When children have a lack of information, their imagination can take over and they try to fill in ‘the blanks’ of the story. This can often lead to a more frightening or distressful story of what happened than the simple facts.
Help your child to deal with their feelings and often, for younger children, how to name their feelings. For example, help them to understand when they are feeling sad and encourage them to talk to you about these feelings. It is okay for you to say that you feel sad too – this normalises the feelings for your child.
School, crèche and friends.
Make sure you inform people who are in everyday contact with your child about the death. Talk to your child’s teacher(s), minders, crèche about what has happened and enlist their help in supporting your child in dealing with their loss. Where possible, break the news to their friends (perhaps through their parents depending on the children’s ages) so that they can support your child too. Telling their friends can be of great help to you child as you are relieving them of the responsibility of breaking the news.
For teachers, carers and crèche workers, or anyone who has a leadership or caring role for your child, it is important that they watch out for changes in behaviour or moods for your child. Ask them to tell you if they notice these changes or have any concerns with how your child is dealing with their grief so that you can intervene as early as possible if your child needs support.
What about funeral or other ceremonies?
The ceremonies involved in the final goodbye to the deceased are a very important part of the grieving process for everyone. It is a chance to formally confirm the death and to go through the steps for the transition from the person living in this life to moving to the next stage. Depending on your beliefs, that could be going to heaven, being reborn in another form or perhaps simply ending existence. The process is an opportunity for us to remember the person, share our grief and pay respect and recognition to their life.
Children should be allowed to attend the services if they wish to do so.
Depending or their age, discuss this with them and decide together if it is right for them to attend. Whatever they decide, reassure them that that is okay. If they don’t wish to attend the funeral, support them in their decision and encourage them to ask you any questions afterwards about what happened at the ceremony. The funeral or similar ceremony provides the child with an opportunity to formally say ‘goodbye’ to the person. They are allowed to be in the ritual of moving the person from being alive in this world to the next stage.
Explain to your child what the ceremony will involve. Discuss the coffin and other rituals and prepare your child. If you are not in a position to sit with your child through the ceremony, then make sure that another trusted adult can sit with your child and support them. Talk to your child about being prepared for seeing people cry and being very sad and reassure them that it is okay for them to cry and feel sad too.
There are mixed views on whether children should see the body of the deceased and whether or not they should attend the ceremonies. With regard to seeing the body of the dead person, it is something that you will have to consider carefully. If the body has been seriously changed since your child last saw the person alive or badly injured, then it may be unwise to let your child see the body as this could be very distressing to them. Often however, like the funeral, seeing the body can be a way of the child being able to say goodbye to the deceased. It can be a way for the child to link the last time that they saw the person to the death and it may them to better understand the death as time goes on. The age, emotional state, condition of the body and many more factors should be carefully considered when deciding if your child should see the body. You also need to reassure your child that it is okay if they don’t want to see the body. It may be useful, if the child opts not to view the body, to describe how the person looked, what they were wearing and so on to help the child to build a mental picture of the person. Many people prefer to keep their last memory of the person alive – explain this to your child and support them in the decision that they make.
When the ceremonies are complete and life has to go on, there are many ways in which you can help your child to cope.
It is good to try to get back to normal routine as soon as possible. Try to do the things that you normally did as a family. Try to allow laughter and happiness back into your family life. Tell your child that it is okay to get on with being happy again. Explain that the deceased person would not want you to be unhappy and so there is no need to feel guilty about doing the normal everyday things that we enjoy. Encourage your child to play, enjoy activities, watch their favourite TV programmes and so forth.
Get your child to return to school and continue with normality as much as possible. Talk to teachers and get their support in helping your child to settle back into school.
Keep connected and be available to chat to your child whenever they need to chat. They may wish to chat about the person who died, talk about happy memories, look at photographs and so on. Tell them that it is okay to feel sad sometime but also encourage them to reflect on happy memories. Make sure that they do not feel that they cannot mention the person for fear of upsetting others in the family.
When significant occasions arise, we can all feel very emotional and worried following the loss of a loved one. For example, how will I cope with Christmas? Talk to your child and involve them in planning for occasions and how it may feel not to have the person there. For occasions such as the deceased person’s birthday or the anniversary of their death, let your child become involved in placing flowers on the grave or attending ceremonies to mark the occasion.
Remember too to take care of yourself throughout the grieving process. While we have to take care of our child/children, we also need to recognise our own grief and get support and help in dealing with it. Lean on friends and relatives when you have too, find support and space where you can express your feelings and recognise that you too may be lonely for the person who has died. If you are dealing with your feelings then you will be better able to help your child.