As parents we strive to protect our children from upset, but few childhoods are spared the sadness of losing someone special or even hearing about death on a news bulletin.
Experts now believe that children aged 4 and above will generally start to understand that death is final and cannot be reversed.
“At this developmental stage children can empathise with and show compassion for peers that have been bereaved. Children aged between five and ten often copy the coping mechanisms that they observe in bereaved adults and they may try to disguise their emotions in an attempt to protect the bereaved adult. The bereaved child can sometimes feel that they need permission to show their emotions and talk about their feelings,” say Cruse.
At this age, however, children will struggle to understand why death happens. Of course, it’s agreed that a perfect understanding of death isn’t the priority at this age and having the correct vocabulary is not expected. Contemporary thinking is united in its opinion that what matters most is how you listen to a child’s concerns and how you help them to feel better about the event, whether you have had time to prepare for the worst or the death is sudden and shocking.
Our research into how to help a child handle death found that the following advice resonated most with parents:
Ask how they feel?
As painful as it may be to talk about the death of a loved-one, parents are encouraged to ask children how they feel about what is happening. By frequently asking a child how they feel about what is happening, they have the opportunity to seek comfort and clear up any confusion they may be feeling. For example, ask them how they feel when you visit the house of the person who has died, how they feel about not seeing that person there or how they feel about the keepsake you have given them to remember the person. By sharing your feelings in return, you’re able to help them to understand that the feelings are natural and normal, however upsetting.
It can be challenging when grieving to avoid using emotionally-charged phrases such as, “Come on be a big brave boy for mummy” but the advice warns against children (or anyone for that matter) hiding of feelings about death.
Feelings are natural
Children need our help to navigate feelings, say bereavement specialists, so it is helpful if you talk openly about feeling sad, feeling mad or getting upset. Equally, simply explain why you are crying if they see your tears. Offer endless reassuring hugs and words, and it’s important to reassure them that school or activities might feel different for a while, and that it’s okay.
Children are sometimes told that their loved ones have gone to a ‘better place’ but expert advice warns against disguising the reality behind such a turn of phrase. Saying a much-loved pet has gone to live on the farm or similar might even be better said in real terms, experts agree, as it helps develop an early understanding of death as a concept that can be discussed. Telling a child what has happened is less confusing for them.
Questions to be prepared to answer, factually and in an age-appropriate way may include:
– Why did they die? / cause of death
– About the funeral service and burial
– What happens to their body?
– Will I die if I go to hospital?
Support from story books
Many parents may struggle to find the words they need to talk about death. Asking a librarian for a list of recommended children’s books on the theme of death can be helpful, and reading them together can be very bonding. ‘The Goodbye Book’ by Todd Parr and ‘The Memory Tree’ by Britta Teckentrup are popular with parents.
Cruse helps adults to see loss from a child’s perspective at their website, here – https://www.cruse.org.uk/get-help/for-parents/loss-from-a-childs-perspective
Support for helping older children deal with death can be found at the Hope Again website, in association with Cruse, here https://www.hopeagain.org.uk/hope-again-talking-about-it