Winston’s Wish: Children and Death Part 2

How age can affect understanding

ages 3-4 until 10:

  • The hamster’s not moving but he’ll play with me tomorrow.
  • The hamster won’t ever play again.
  • Old people die and we can never play with them again.
  • Grandpa may die one day in the future.
  • Mummy and daddy will die when they’re old.
  • I will die when I’m old.
  • Not only old people die. Mummy and daddy could die tomorrow if something happened.
  • I could die tomorrow.
  • I can kill myself.

Under 5 or 6, a child may not be able to understand

that death is permanent.

Slightly older children may still have this hope and belief that the death will not be permanent but are beginning to understand ‘forever’. Children bereaved when they are 5 to 8 years old may feel that they can in some way reverse what has happened (‘Dad will come back if I’m very good and eat my broccoli’).

They may also feel – as may older children and young people – that they in some way caused the death. (‘I was angry with him and shouted at him when he left for work because he wouldn’t fix my bike. I refused to give him a hug. And then he never came home again. It’s all my fault.’) It is so common for a young person to feel they may have contributed to the death that it’s worth saying something like: ‘You do know, don’t you, that nothing you said or didn’t say and nothing you did or didn’t do made this happen?’

When first told of the death, younger children may be mainly concerned with the ‘when’ and ‘where’ of the death. Slightly older ones may also want to know the ‘how’ and older children and young people will also explore the ‘why’.

Younger children will express their concerns about their own future; don’t be surprised if a child asks you: ‘What will happen to me? Who will meet me after school? Will I still go to Cubs?’ Whatever reassurance is possible about continuing everyday activities and arrangements will be appreciated, or clear explanations given about alternative arrangements. ‘At the moment, we’re working all this out. What I do know is that we will still be living in this house at least until Christmas and that granny Jane will meet you from school on the days I can’t. You can still have Bethany to tea whenever you want.’

As children begin to understand more about death and dying, a death in the family may make them anxious about the health and safety of surviving members of the family. Don’t be surprised if the children become more clingy or more reluctant to see you leave. They may feel that they need to stick close to protect you from the mysterious occurrence that made their dad disappear or at least to be with you if it happens again. Older children may feel very responsible for you and younger siblings and feel the need to keep a close eye on your safety.

By the age of 10, children will usually have all of the bits of the jigsaw puzzle of understanding. They will even understand that they are able to cause their own death. They will appreciate clear and detailed information – beyond ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘how’ the death happened, they will be interested in ‘why’.

Talking about death

Talking to your child about the death of someone close may be the hardest thing you have ever done or will ever do.

Yet to keep talking about the person who has died – offering information, recalling and stimulating memories, and sharing feelings – is one of the most important things you can do to help your child as they journey through grief. Children never want to forget the person who has died.

When children ask difficult questions, there is no automatic need to give a long explanation. Beginning by asking: ‘What do you think?’, and building on their answer, will aid their understanding.

Younger children may be confused by some of the everyday expressions that people use when someone dies, so it is best to keep language simple and direct. Saying that someone has ‘died’ or is ‘dead’ gives a child unique words for a unique event and helps them begin to understand that what has happened is so important that it needs a whole new range of words to describe it.

Consider that you are young and you are told that: ‘We’ve lost your mother’. Wouldn’t you wonder why no-one was out looking everywhere they could think of for her? Wouldn’t you be afraid that no-one would come looking for you if you became lost?

Suppose you are told that: ‘Granny has gone to sleep’ or ‘passed away in her sleep’. Wouldn’t you be very scared of going to bed at night and do all you could to keep yourself and your parents awake at all costs?

Even the language we use with the very best intentions of giving appropriate and accurate descriptions can confuse a child. Take a moment to think about it from their point of view. Here are some examples of misunderstandings that children have shared with us:

  • ‘Someone attacked daddy in his heart but I couldn’t see the cuts.’ (His father had a heart attack.

 

  • ‘They told me my baby sister was born dead. But how could she be both? (Her sister was stillborn.)

 

  • ‘If he passed his HIV on, why did he still have it?’

 

The language surrounding funeral rites can also confuse. Children who are asked if they want to see their mother’s body have asked: ‘Why not her head too?’ Similarly, when people talk of burying or cremating someone’s body, children can wonder what happens to all the other bits.

‘She was beside herself when I suggested she came with me to see the new headstone on her mum’s grave. It was only later that she told me she’d thought it would be her mum’s head changed into stone. Logical really because we talk of her body being in the grave.’

Children who have always been told to avoid fire and flames may be alarmed at the idea that their relative’s body is to be burnt.

 Families try to convey their beliefs about life after death to their children. Some families may believe in a heaven or other place beyond this world. Some may believe that the person who has died is a star, or an angel, or is ‘all around us’. Some may believe that the dead person will be reborn in some form. Some may believe that death is an ending.

While it is your choice about how you talk about what happens after death, please consider the following thoughts that children have shared with us. They worry whether they will be seen when they are being naughty or want to be private. They wonder why their parents don’t ring or write from heaven. They struggle to understand how grandad can become a planet.

‘Mummy said daddy had gone to heaven. But she won’t take me to see him. Granny lives in Cornwall so I don’t see why we can’t go and visit him: you go through heaven to get there.’

‘Gran says mum can see me all the time. So she must have seen me hide the sweets. She won’t love me any more because I said I hadn’t.’

It may be best to say something like: ‘People have all sorts of beliefs about what happens after someone dies. We know that they can’t come back and visit us or ring on the phone. Being dead isn’t like being in another country. These are some of the things that people believe … and I believe this … I wonder what you believe? You may change what you believe as you grow older’.

Time passes

You will come across many beliefs about grief. Only you will find out what is true for you and for your children – and they may be different things.

You will probably be told that ‘time heals’ or that ‘the first year is the worst’. Some families find this is true – but others find that the second year can be even harder. Or the fourth.

It can be when family and friends ask less about how you are coping or when the invitations fall away or when people assume you are ‘over it’ that the loneliness and the yearning hit hardest.

Children and young people tell us that, after a while, their friends stop talking about the person who has died, that teachers no longer ask how they’re doing and that sometimes even their own families stop communicating, assuming that it’s ‘for the best’ if the person fades from memory. Yet these young people passionately want to keep talking about the person who has died – they just need some help to do so.

We often hear from families who say something like: ‘He never talks about his dad, I think he’s forgotten him’. Children and young people need your help to keep talking about the person who has died. They need your ‘permission’ that it is OK to do so, and this is best demonstrated by you talking about them regularly and naturally.

Young people want to preserve their memories and maintain a ‘continuing bond’ with the person who has died for as long as they choose.

Feelings, thoughts and behaviour

Children and young people can experience a huge range of feelings and thoughts after the death of someone close. You may feel that your children are reacting in unexpected or surprising ways. You may feel that some reactions are inappropriate. Each child and young person will have a unique response to this unique event – and every reaction is natural.

Some people expect – or maybe that should be ‘hope’ – that grief will follow a pattern of responses from disbelief and shock through to acceptance. Bereaved young people will tell you that grief is nowhere near as organised or straightforward. Grief feels chaotic. Grief follows no rules. Think about yourself and how it has felt for you.

So the following list just begins to describe some common responses to the death of someone important. You may also want to take a look at the ‘feelings’ area of the pages for young people to see some of the feelings young people have shared with us. And you may like to look at our ‘This may help’ section for some practical ideas.

Common responses include:

  • Sadness, not necessarily shown in crying. (‘Don’t they realise people cry on the inside too?’)
  • Guilt. (‘If only I hadn’t refused to tidy my room.’)
  • Anger, at others and/or at the person who has died. (‘I hate him for riding so fast on his motorbike; he can’t have loved us.’)
  • Disbelief. (‘If I don’t think about it, she’ll come back.’)
  • Confusion. (‘I don’t understand anything any more; it’s all jumbled up.’)
  • Fear. (‘No-one’s safe; they say everyone dies.’)
  • Rage, often expressed in physical violence to objects. (‘I want to smash up the whole ***** world.’)
  • Anxiety and a desire to control events and people. (‘What’s going to happen next?’)
  • Despair. (‘There’s no point in anything any more.’)
  • Feeling ‘frozen’. (‘I can’t feel anything at all.’)
  • Avoiding the subject. (‘I’m leaving if you mention Tim again.’)
  • Wanting to keep busy at all costs. (‘I can’t talk … I’m off to football.’)
  • Yearning. (‘If I could just see her for a second.’)
  • Powerlessness. (‘What can I do?’)
  • Worthlessness. (‘It should have been me who died.’)

 The death of a parent

Leading researchers agree that the death of a parent is one of the hardest losses a child has to face. Young people’s responses to the death of a parent will vary according to:

  • their age
  • the cause and nature of the death (for example, whether sudden or expected, whether by suicide or violence)
  • the family circumstances (for example, whether parents lived together, whether major life changes will now be necessary)
  • any previous experience of death or trauma within the family
  • their own resilience and the support and care they receive.

The death of a parent may cause a child or young person to feel some or all of the following:

  • deep sadness, that may or may not be expressed in conventional ways such as crying
  • a hollow, achy pain inside that is hard to put into words and may be described as hunger or boredom or fear
  • loneliness and a sense of having been abandoned
  • anxiety about the safety and well-being of the rest of the family, especially the surviving parent and including themselves
  • that they have to become more responsible – ‘man of the house now’
  • that there’s no point in anything any more, including school work
  • anger and even rage at what has happened
  • blame or guilt for things said or unsaid, done or undone
  • relief – if the family situation and dynamics had been difficult, for example
  • physical symptoms (for example, ones that may echo their dead] parent’s symptoms)
  • and many others.

 

The death of a brother or sister

 

Young people’s responses to the death of a brother or sister will vary according to:

  • their age
  • the age of their brother or sister
  • their position within the family
  • how long they had known each other (for example, a stillborn baby or an older teenager)
  • the cause and nature of the death (for example, whether sudden or expected, whether by suicide or violence)
  • the family circumstances (for example, their parents’ ability to support them while grieving themselves)
  • any previous experience of death or trauma within the family
  • their own resilience and the support and care they receive.

 

The death of a brother or sister may cause a child or young person to feel some or all of the following:

  • deep sadness, that may or may not be expressed in conventional ways such as crying
  • a hollow, achy pain inside that is hard to put into words and may be described as hunger or boredom or fear
  • loneliness and a sense of having been abandoned
  • anxiety about the safety and well-being of the rest of the family, especially other siblings and themselves
  • a feeling of responsibility – working hard, helping out
  • a sense of identification with, for example, an older sibling and a commitment to live up to their memory and planned future
  • a feeling that there’s no point in anything any more, including school work
  • anger and even rage at what has happened
  • blame or guilt for things said or unsaid, done or undone
  • relief – if the family situation and dynamics had been difficult, for example, or if the sibling had caused family strife
  • resentment at parents’ absorption in their own grief
  • disquiet at reaching and passing sibling’s age
  • and many others.


The death of a grandparent, other relative or friend

 Young people’s responses to the death of someone close will vary according to:

  • their age
  • the age of the person who died
  • the nature of their relationship (for example, a grandfather who picked them up from school every day or an aunt who lived in Australia and just sent birthday cards)
  • the cause and nature of the death (for example, whether sudden or expected, whether by suicide or violence)
  • the family circumstances (for example, their parents’ ability to support them while grieving themselves)
  • any previous experience of death or trauma within the family or wider community (for example, the third child from school to die this year)
  • their own resilience and the support and care they receive.

The death of a grandparent, other relative or friend may cause a child or young person to feel some or all of the following:

  • deep sadness, that may or may not be expressed in conventional ways such as crying
  • a hollow, achy pain inside that is hard to put into words and may be described as hunger or boredom or fear
  • loneliness and a sense of having been abandoned (for example, they were the only school friend who played at lunchtime)
  • anxiety about the safety and well-being of the rest of the family  including themselves
  • a feeling of responsibility – working hard, helping out
  • a feeling that there’s no point in anything any more, including school work
  • anger and even rage at what has happened
  • blame or guilt for things said or unsaid, done or undone
  • relief – if the family situation and dynamics had been difficult, (for example, if gran lived with the family and needed a great deal of care)
  • the loss of a trusted supporter (for example, an uncle who always had time to listen)
  • and many others.

 Different causes of death

There’s no hierarchy of death. No means or cause of death is better or worse than another for a grieving child. They are all overwhelming.

If a death is expected (for example, through cancer or other illness), the family may have had time to prepare for the loss, to begin to adjust to the future without the person, to make sure that photographs have been taken, letters to open in the future have been written, goodbyes said. It is very likely that the family will have received help – and will continue to receive help – from a hospice-based service or other support service (such as Macmillan nurses).

However, the family may also have suffered through a prolonged period of stress in which the children felt unable to undertake normal activities or to rebel or have fun; a period when the family focused on the person who was dying in a way that the children found very hard.

If a death is sudden (for example, through a heart attack or road accident) there is no chance for goodbyes and no chance for preparations or adjustment. The last conversations linger in the memory. There is no professional whose role it is to support these bereaved families (although police family liaison officers and hospital-based bereavement services make valuable contributions). However, for some people, a sudden death may be seen more positively (for example, of a frail grandmother).

If a death is through suicide, there are particular difficulties for the families left behind. It has been estimated that for every suicide, six people will experience intense grief – and many more will be deeply affected. Those bereaved through suicide face especially intense feelings and thoughts, ask themselves more agonising questions and face more public scrutiny. For both children and adults, it can take a long time to dare to trust others again.

Funerals and other memorials

Families, and individuals within families, can have very different views on whether children should see the body after death or attend the funeral.

From our conversations with bereaved children and young people, we know that they value the chance to choose but, to make an informed choice, they need information on what is involved.

However, if it will not be possible or appropriate for your children to attend the funeral, for whatever reason, there are other positive ways in which they can be involved. Or, if the funeral happened a while ago, and your children have regrets that they did not attend, it is never too late to have a memorial or other ceremony that includes them in saying ‘goodbye’.

Probably the biggest factor that will affect a younger child’s attendance at a funeral is if they feel their presence is welcome there. If there is going to be tension (as opposed to sadness) they will pick this up and feel more distressed by the atmosphere than by what is happening. It’s your family. You know them best.

It is, however, worth saying that we have spoken to many, many children who did not attend the funeral of someone close and later regretted it.

Why it can help to see the body and attend the funeral

Families will have different cultural and religious beliefs about seeing the person who has died and attending the funeral, but it can help a child to:

  • begin to say goodbye
  • begin to accept the reality and finality of the death
  • begin to understand what has happened
  • be less scared.

 

Seeing the body

If you are prepared to let your child make the choice of whether to see the person after they have died, some things may help them decide:

  • Tell them that they can change their minds – at any time.
  • Check that they are happy with the choice they’ve made – but not too often, because children want to please and may say what they think you want them to say.
  • Give them clear and detailed information about what will happen. (‘Aunt Sue and me and you will drive to the Chapel of Rest on the High Street just past the video shop. There’s a little room with a few chairs where we can sit and wait. You’ll have the chance to change your mind. Then Mr Collins, the undertaker, will come in. He’s quite tall and has wispy ginger hair and always wears a suit. Aunt Sue will go in to see dad first.’)
  • Let them know, quite clearly and in detail, what to expect, ideally from you or someone else who has already seen the body. (‘Your dad is lying in the box called a coffin on a table with his head to the left and his feet to the right. You can see all of him because the lid isn’t there. There’s a window high up in the wall behind him and you can see a tree through it. Your dad’s wearing his old football shirt. There’s a rather nice smell from a vase of flowers on the table near your dad’s head. He doesn’t look quite like Jim as I think of him, partly because he’s not jumping up and offering you a drink, and partly because he’s got his eyes closed and he’s not talking. Partly, I think, because the bit I think of as “Jim” isn’t there. It’s just his body. So don’t be surprised if it doesn’t seem to be your dear dad. His skin’s cold too. You can touch him. I kissed his forehead which was what I wanted to do but it seemed strange that his skin was cold.’)
  • Give them choices about what they do when they enter the room – they can wait by the door, stroke a head or hand, and leave when they want to.
  • Children and young people often appreciate taking something with a special meaning to leave with body, for example, a card they have made, or a shell from a favourite holiday or a picture.

Attending the funeral

If you are prepared to let your child make the choice of whether to attend the funeral, some things may help them decide:

  • Talk to them about what is involved.
  • Let them know that they can change their minds – at any time.
  • Check that they are happy with the choice they’ve made – but not too often, because children want to please and may say what they think you want them to say.
  • Have someone with whom the child feels secure to act as their supporter for the funeral. This may be an aunt or uncle or one of your best friends. This allows you to be fully present at the funeral for your own sake.
  • Give them clear and detailed information about what will happen; this will involve explanations about the difference between, for example, burials and cremations. If it fits with your own beliefs, it will help if the child has had some preparation about the difference between the body of the person and the part that made them who they were. Some people call this a soul, or a spirit, or love, or ‘what was special about daddy’ or ‘what we will remember about daddy’.
  • Reassure them that it is all of the body of the person who has died that is being buried or cremated. Some younger children are confused and wonder what happens to the head, arms and legs.
  • Give reassurance that the person who has died can no longer feel anything, so they will not feel the flames nor will they be scared at being buried.
  • Offer clear and detailed explanations of what to expect from people at the funeral. Some children can be shocked that people seem to have a party after someone has died; others are upset when people say: ‘How lovely to see you’. Explain that this doesn’t mean that these people are happy that the person has died – they’re just the sort of things that adults say. Equally, seeing adults in deep distress may alarm children but preparation beforehand will help them understand that this is a reasonable response to the huge thing that has happened.
  • Prepare them for some of the things that adults may say to them. For example, boys may be told that they are the ‘man of the house now’ and will appreciate reassurance that they are not.
  • Create opportunities to be involved. This may be in the planning of the funeral service. It may be through saying or reading or writing something about the person who has died. It may be through choosing a particular piece of music. They may wish for something special to be put in the coffin, for example, a picture or something linked to a memory.
  • Give plenty of reassurance that they can still be involved and participate in saying ‘goodbye’ even if they choose not to attend and that they won’t be criticised if they don’t go to the funeral.

Alternative ‘goodbyes’

It is never too late to hold a memorial or other ceremony for an important person. You could consider linking this to an important date – for example the date of their death, or of the funeral or of their birthday. Children and young people who did not attend the funeral may appreciate some of the following ideas; they can also be used for marking the anniversary of the person’s death:

  • Visit the grave (if there is one – or other special place, for example where the ashes were scattered).
  • Visit a place with special memories (for example, the place where you had your best holiday ever).
  • Create a special place of their own choosing (for example, in the garden of a new house).
  • Visit a place that you went to regularly (for example, the park or the swimming pool) – an everyday rather than a once-in-a-lifetime place.

Some of these ideas may make the occasion special:

  • Hold a small ceremony with specially chosen music, poems and tributes.
  • Bring a picnic of the dead person’s favourite food to share.
  • Prepare something to leave in the ‘special place’ – flowers, a laminated poem, a toy.
  • Release helium-filled balloons to which messages are attached on labels. You could say: ‘If you came back for five minutes, I would …’ or ‘I remember when …’ or ‘My wish for the future is …’
  • Light a candle and share special memories with each other.
  • Start a collection of memories from family and friends of the person who has died. (‘I remember the day Jim got stuck on the school roof after climbing up to get his ball.’)

 

When more help may be needed

 

Most children and their families will be able to cope with the death of a close family member, especially if families can talk about what is happening, about their thoughts and feelings, and about the person who has died.

Community-based local bereavement services for young people can offer support, and help children and families begin to rebuild their lives following a death in the family.

Many people worry about their children and they sometimes feel they should seek professional help immediately after the death. Children and young people will have a range of reactions that may cause concern. These may include: not talking about the person who has died, deep sadness, rage, disturbed sleep, nightmares, lack of appetite or over-eating, lack of interest in previous enthusiasms, not wanting to attend school or see friends.

Most of these changes will disappear gradually. However, if they persist or become severe (for example, a child almost stops sleeping or a teenager considers suicide as a way of rejoining the person who has died), it may be best to seek help. You could start by talking to your family doctor.

This may help

The following are some examples of activities that may:

  • support a bereaved child or young person and their family
  • preserve a continuing link with the person who has died
  • involve children and young people in the mourning process
  • help bereaved children and their families take steps along their unique bereavement journey.

 

  • Making a Memory Box

Bereaved children will benefit from collecting into a special box items that remind them of the person who has died and times shared with them. Examples could be:- cards received, perfume or aftershave, shells from a beach holiday, tickets from an outing, an item of clothing or jewellery, flowers from the funeral, photographs……. Every time the child turns over the items in the box, they are turning over the memories of the person in their mind and thus keeping fresh their memories. You can find specially designed memory boxes and information sheets in our Shop.

 

  • Making a Memory Book

This is a paper-based version of a memory box. A scrapbook can contain pictures, drawings, tickets, postcards, letters, and certificates – all-important keepsakes connected with the person who has died.

 

  • Family Record

A family record can help a child or young person gain a sense of where they and the person who has died fits into the family. A family tree can be put together. Family photographs, documents, certificates and mementoes can be included. It can be particularly powerful to include stories about the person’s life, which can be contributed by family members and friends; this is often a welcome way for them to be involved. For example, what was the funniest thing the person ever did? What was their best subject at school? What was the bravest thing they ever did? If you are going to include videos or sound tapes of the person who has died – please consider making a copy – just to be on the safe side.

 

  • Telling the story

It is important that children and young people gain a clear understanding of what happened to the person who died. Younger children may appreciate using dolls, model figures or puppets to tell the story. Older children may prefer to use paper and pens. It can help them tell what happened if they break the story into 5 or so pieces: -

 

  • what was life like before they died ? (some idea of the family before the death)
  • what happened just before they died ? (earlier in the day, the day before…)
  • how did they die ? what happened?
  • what happened immediately afterwards
  • what is life like now?

 

Listening to them tell what happened gives a chance gently to correct any misunderstandings, to provide additional information and to answer any questions.

  • Sleeping difficulties

Bereaved children can have difficulties sleeping; both in getting to sleep through worrying and grieving, and in experiencing nightmares or disturbing dreams.

For worrying, try South American worry dolls. (you can buy these in ‘Oxfam’ or similar shops or make your own). 5 or 6 tiny doll-like figures are held within a tiny cloth bag with a drawstring. South American children are encouraged at bedtime to whisper one big worry to each doll. The dolls are then placed under the pillow and the dolls take over the task of worrying for the night.

For bad dreams and nightmares, try the American Indian legend of the ‘Dreamcatcher’. (You can buy these from some ‘Oxfam’ or similar shops or make your own). The legend tells how all the dreams of the world flow over our heads as we sleep. Our dreams are caught by the Dreamcatcher’s web; the bad dreams stick to the strands of the web and the good dreams filter softly down the feathers to the sleeper beneath. Some Dreamcatchers have beads woven onto the web – these represent ‘heroes’ and a child can choose their own heroes to help hold back the bad dreams (for example, one could be Dad, another could be a football star, another could be the family dog etc).

  • Anxiety on parting

Bereaved children can become very concerned about being apart from their parent(s) or carers after a death. They may worry that other people will also die or in some way disappear from their lives.

   Handprints

Place your hand and your child’s hand on a piece of paper, with one or more fingers touching. Draw around the hands. Do another sheet so that each of you has a copy. Then each person keeps their copy safe – for a child, it could be tucked into a school bag, or a coat pocket. Whenever they feel the need to be close to you, they place their hand over their handprint and ‘feel’ your hand alongside, supporting and encouraging them.

   Later today..

When parting, mention something that will happen after school (or wherever the child is spending the day). For example, ‘remind me to buy potatoes when I collect you’; ‘let’s feed the ducks on the way home tonight’; ‘we must water the plants this afternoon’. Having a glimpse of the future that includes both of you can be comforting.

Winston’s Wish Organisation (UK): Children and death part 1

 

Supporting a bereaved child or young person.

A guide for parents and carers

Whether sudden or expected, few life events have a greater impact on families than the death of a family member. The ways in which families make sense of,  and cope with their grief vary greatly. Everyone’s bereavement journey will be unique. But grief is normal – and necessary – and needs to be expressed.

 

Although supporting a bereaved child can seem daunting, there are simple, straightforward and practical ways, which can make a real difference.

 

With support and information, young people can be helped to understand what has happened and can slowly learn to live with their loss.

For parents and carers

 

At a time when you are experiencing your own grief at the death of a partner, child, other family member or friend, it can seem overwhelming to offer support to your child or children.

 

Within these pages we hope to give you some information and some guidance on the responses and needs of children and young people when someone important in their life has died.

Some important reminders

 

  • Remember that ‘super parents’ don’t exist. Just do what you can, when you can. Be gentle on yourself.

 

  • There is more than one way to support your children. Choose the things that you feel most comfortable with.

 

  • Accept that some things just can’t be ‘made better’ in a short space of time.

 

  • Talk to children using words they understand and ask questions to check they have understood you.

 

  • Give information a bit at a time if your children are younger. Pieces of the ‘jigsaw puzzle’ can be put together over time to make the complete picture.

 

  • Show children how you are feeling: it helps them to know that it’s OK to show their feelings too

 

 

  • Encourage children to ask questions and keep answering them – even if it’s for the 100th time.

 

  • Answer questions honestly and simply; and be willing to say ‘I don’t know’.

 

  • Try to find ways in which children can be involved.

 

  • Keep talking about the person who has died.

 

  • Trust yourself and your instincts – you haven’t forgotten how to parent your child.

 

  • Look after yourself too.

 

 

Children and grief

 

Children’s experience of a death in the family, and their reactions to it, may be different from yours as an adult. Try not to assume you know what they are feeling – ask them what they are feeling and accept what they tell you.

 

Initial reactions may range from great distress to what may seem to be unconcern. They may find it impossible to speak, they may be unable to stop crying or they may ask: ‘Can I ride my bike now?’ All of these – and more – are normal reactions and do not mean that the child is uncaring or reacting excessively.

 

Younger children experience grief differently to adults. Adults could be said to wade with difficulty through rivers of grief, and may become stuck in the middle of a wide sea of grieving. For children, their grieving can seem more like leaping in and out of puddles. One minute, they may be sobbing, the next they are asking: ‘What’s for tea?’ It does not mean they care any the less about what has happened.

 

KITES Charity UK: How do children cope with the death of a loved one? Part 2.

How to support a child through times of loss or grief:

  • Give your child truthful information – sometimes it may be tempting to shield your child from unpleasant facts, particularly if you are in pain yourself, but in fact if you do not tell your child the truth, they may build a fantasy of what has happened and they may easily come to the conclusion that it was their fault.
  • Inform your child’s school what has happened so that they may support your child through this difficult time.
  • Give your child reassurance -encourage them to believe in their ability to recover.
  • Help your child to understand that dead means “not living.” Use age-appropriate language and factual works like “death” or “dying.” Remember that younger children often think that death and sleeping are the same and they may need to be reassured that if they go to sleep, they will wake up again.
  • Give your child opportunities to say goodbye. Let your child go to the funeral and/or the cemetery. Explain to the child beforehand what to expect.
  • Allow your child to talk about what has happened even if it feels painful. Often children become anxious about expressing grief because they don’t want to upset you.
  • Be prepared to answer the same questions over and over again – children will take longer to understand what has happened than adults.
  • Give your child opportunities to express his/her feelings and reflect those feelings back to them. For example,  ”I know you are very angry that Grandpa is sick. You are scared he is going to die.”
  • Stick to normal daily routines and don’t forget to keep hugging and holding your child – they will need lots of reassurance and affection.
  • Be creative – Allow your child to make something that will keep the loved one’s memory alive. This could be a photo album, a story about the person, or a memory box with a few precious objects in. These memories can then be returned to at a less painful time.
  • Young children almost always display magical thinking during times of loss or death. Therefore you need to clearly convey the message – “It was not your fault. You are not bad or unlovable. There is nothing you could have done to change things.”
  • Avoid using euphemisms or figures of speech like “went to sleep” or “passed away.” Remember a child may take these phrases literally and become fearful of what they mean.
  • Make time to mark special times that were special before the bereavement and also to enjoy life!
  • Empower your child – ask them what they want.
  • Don’t take control away from the child – let them make decisions about what they want to do.
  • Try to share your grief with your child without “dumping” it onto them.
  • Let them have contact with people with whom they are close to.

 

An example of a Memory Box:


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

End of Part 2.

KITES Charity UK: How do children cope with the death of a loved one? Part 1.

KITES at St. Joseph’s Hospice in the UK provides crucial play therapy services for children that have been affected by bereavement. They usually get involved after someone has died, but sometimes they will get involved beforehand when someone in the family has a life-threatening illness.

I found their website information particularly interesting and helpful, and I felt that I should share it with families out there:

1) Children’s responses to loss:

Children will often feel numbness, disbelief, guilt, panic, denial, despair and anger after the death of a family member. They might be in shock and denial right after receiving the bad news and wander around searching for their loved one if they have died.

Children may experience disturbed sleep, fear of the dark, bad dreams and bedwetting. They might regress to earlier stages of their development and start behaving in a more ‘childish’ way. They may feel angry and question why this thing has happened to them. They may question any professionals who may have been involved in the care of the person that is ill or has died.

Children may change their eating habits – they may eat more or less. They may become restless or withdrawn. They may become clingy and fear any separation from their carer.

Children may feel run down, tired or forgetful. They may catch more illnesses than usual.

Children of all ages, but particularly young children may ‘play out’ their feelings rather than talking about them.

Young children in particular may feel abandoned rather than sad.

End of Part 1