Children’s Bereavement Support
Wathall’s Bereavement Support Coordinator, who is also a trained counsellor offers the following advice:
Talking to a child about death can sometimes feel too difficult to do. Often adults feel like they must protect children from this harsh reality but avoiding the discussions can cause confusion and anxiety for the child. Children are extremely resilient and can deal with the truth, if it is explained to them gently in age-appropriate language that they understand.
When talking to a child about death, it is important to remember not to tell them anything that they will have to unlearn later. The use of metaphors has often been the preferred method of explaining a death to a child, but anything short of the truth can confuse the child and their understanding of how the world works.
Using real words like “dead” or “died” is important. It may seem kinder to the child to explain things in a soft way, for example, telling a child “Grandad went to sleep last night and didn’t wake up”, can confuse the child and even spark a fear of falling asleep. A child’s world is very literal, and we must respect that, so try instead to say something along the lines of, “I have something sad to say. Last night, Grandad died”.
If they don’t understand death, seem to be a bit confused or even have never experienced a death and need further explanation you could follow with, “When someone dies their body stops working. Their heart doesn’t beat any more and they do not breathe. A dead body can’t move or feel anything and there is nothing that can be done to bring a body back to life”.
Be aware of medical language that we use often and take the meaning of for granted, these words will likely be new and confusing for a child so it’s worth trying to break them down and explaining in simple terms what they mean.
The age of the child will more than likely change the way that you sit down and tell them about the death. For instance, a younger child will need more explanation as this will probably be their first experience of death and they may have questions. Whereas, an older child in their early teens may need less explaining as they have experienced the world for longer.
As well as the advice above, here are some more pointers on how to have the conversation:
Tell the child that you have something sad you must talk to them about – this will give them a short amount of time to prepare themselves instead of springing it upon them.
Sit them down somewhere comfortably and where they feel safe.
If there is a choice, the child should be told about the death by an adult the child likes and trusts. This may be a parent, close relative or a family friend.
Try to be physically close/have physical contact with the child for comfort and safety.
Children are excellent readers of body language and will sense something is wrong pretty quickly, for this reason it is important to tell the child about the death as soon as possible to avoid them finding out in an inappropriate way
When you tell a child that someone has died, they will more than likely have some questions, try to answer the question only without giving any more detail than what is required.
If you get asked a question and you are unsure about how to answer, ask the child what they think the answer is. It might be that they already know the answer, but they just want some reassurance.
If the person who has died has been unwell, it might be helpful to build upon the knowledge the child already has.
Reassure the child that its ok to be sad, it’s ok to cry and it’s even ok to not cry. But should they need any extra help, they can ask you at any time. This gives the child one adult they can rely on to support them.
Be honest and don’t hide your feelings. If a child sees that an adult is trying to stop themselves from crying and being upset over a death, the child may try to mirror that behaviour and bury their feelings instead of expressing them.
If the child is a young, the following points may also help:
Explain that it’s not their fault – children often blame themselves for the things they can’t explain.
You may wish to use a book to help you explain what has happened. “Badgers Parting Gift” by Susan Varley is one of the many books available which can help explain life events to young children.
They might have some unusual questions, but if you are unsure how to answer or don’t know the answer yourself, tell the child you don’t know, and you will try to find out and tell them.
Children, especially younger children, may need to have the information repeated quite often for a few weeks after the death. It’s just the process of the child getting a firm understanding and it is nothing to worry about. Remember, this may be their first experience of death and its normally of a close family member, so it will take a while for them to get use to the absence.
Once the child knows about the death, the next thing to talk to them about is the funeral. Often, making the choice for a child to attend a funeral is difficult with many different opinions in the mix. If the child is too young to understand or remember what is happening, say children under the age of three years of age, their parent or guardian may make the decision to not take them to the funeral, but any child old enough to know what is happening should be given the choice.
If you decide to take the child to the funeral, here are some pointers on how prepare them for the funeral if it is their first time:
Explain why we have funerals, telling them that it is a time for family and friends to come together and celebrate the life of the person who has died and say goodbye.
Describe to the child what they will see. It can be quite confusing for children to see adults express a range of emotions, especially if they aren’t expressing the same emotions as the child. Warning the child that they will see people crying, laughing, smiling and hugging each other can help the child understand that its ok to want to do all these things.
It can help adults to view the body of their loved one before the funeral. The decision to take a child to view is entirely up to you, and them. If you make the decision to take the child to view, prepare them before walking into the room by describing what they are about to see. Remember that as adults we take it for granted that the person will be in a coffin and will feel cold to touch, these facts may be shocking to a child. The Funeral Arranger looking after your family will tell you what to expect before you walk into the room also.
If you make the decision not to talk the child to view, you could offer the child a chance to write their loved on a letter or even draw a picture to put into the coffin.
Explain to the child the process of a burial or cremation. If the funeral is based on religious or spiritual beliefs, explain this to the child.
Explain to the child what will happen during the service. If you are unsure of the order of service, you can ask your funeral arranger to make a note of what will happen during the funeral so that you can explain.
If you are going to a reception or wake, explain what will happen there. The more the child knows before going, the less chance you have got of them getting confused and frustrated.
Whether the child is going to the funeral or not, they should be involved in arranging the funeral as it can provide them with an outlet for their grief. Including the child in the process can be done in several ways, picking a picture to go into the order of service, writing a letter or even giving a gift to put into the coffin.
When the child is at the funeral, it’s a good idea to seat them with an adult that they trust and feel comfortable with, just in case they have any questions. This may be at the back near the door, just in case the child gets overwhelmed and needs some outside time.
Should you feel that you need extra bereavement support and guidance, please don’t hesitate to call us on 01332 345268.
Fay’s booklet about supporting children after a death can be downloaded free of charge and she has also produced an activity book to help children come to terms with their grief which is available from the online shop priced £12.99