Children and Bereavement
Many people worry about what to tell children and how to help them when someone close to them dies. Children’s reactions to death depend on their age and stage of development. However, children, even the very young, often understand much more than the adults may realise.
Children’s grief differs from adults in that it is sporadic – your child may be upset one moment and a few moments later go out to play. This is quite normal. The following suggestions may help you when discussing the death of someone close with your child, and in responding to their grief. You may find this hard because of your own upset. Ask for support from family and friends who are close to you or your child.
Ways to help children when someone dies
When a death is expected, prepare children beforehand. This should be done by the person or people closest to them. Let them know gradually what is happening, for example “the doctors and nurses are trying very hard to make Mammy better but they don’t think she will get better”. Allow them to ask questions in their own time. They may ask directly if the person is going to die. Answer them as truthfully as possible. Help them express their worries and fears. Your could say something like “we are all very sad that Mammy is dying. Sometimes we feel angry and scared”. This may help children talk about what they feel. Explain to them that it is nobody’s fault that the person is dying, that it is because she/he is very sick. Most importantly, reassure them that you love them and will be there to care for them.
When a death is sudden children should learn about it as soon as possible and should be told by a parent or someone very close to them.
Over simplified or inappropriate explanations will increase the child’s fear and uncertainty and about what is happening. Explanations such as “Daddy was sick and has gone to heaven” pr “Granny went to sleep and died” may lead to confusion. The child will need an explanation that there are different types of sickness, e.g. “little” and “big” sicknesses, also telling the child about a death the words “dead” or “died” should be used. Phrases such as “has gone away” or “passed away” may be confusing for young children who can be very literal. They may be under the impression that the person is alive elsewhere or will return. Death should not be equated with sleep. Such explanations may result in the child being fearful of bedtime or of going to sleep.
Keep explanations short, simple and truthful. They may need to be repeated many times. It might be useful for example to say to the younger child “Daddy was very sick. It was a big sickness, not like having a cold. The doctors and nurses could not make him better even though they tried very hard. Daddy’s body could not work anymore so he died. Being dead doesn’t hurt”. Your explanation will also depend on the questions asked by the child.
It is best to tell all the children together. Gather them close to you and use language they can all understand. Afterwards, it may help to spend some time alone with each child.
It is difficult to predict how children will react to bad news. They may cry, ask questions matter of factly, be silent or run out of the room. The most important thing is to be honest and open and to listen to what the child is saying. In this way, the child will know that death is an open subject and that they can ask questions and talk about worries as they arise.
Involving children in the services and funeral may help them feel included and make the death more real for them. Make sure each child is looked after by a specific person who knows them. Children can feel very isolated and forgotten at funerals. It is important to give children choices and not to force them to do anything they are uncomfortable doing. Prepare children beforehand should they wish to see the body of the person who has died or attend the funeral.
Children may ask the same questions many times. Although this may be difficult for you, it is their way of trying to understand what has happened.
Maintain usual routines as much as possible. The death of someone close, especially a parent, may leave children feeling insecure and worried about who will take care of them. Comfort them and reassure them that you love them and will take care of them.
Children learn from adults how to deal with death. Encourage the child to talk about feelings and share with them that you are also sad. It is okay to cry in front of children but explain why you are upset, as they can feel very helpless when they see an adult upset.
Children can be very aware of their parent’s grief and for this reason may not talk about the person who has died in case they cause further upset. If this is happening you should talk to them about the person so that they can express their feelings.
Children sometimes feel that they did something, which caused the death. Explain the cause of death and that is had nothing to do with things they said or did. Perhaps, when a child’s brother or sister has died, the child may have said such things as “I wish you were dead” and may now feel that this in some way caused the death.
Children may display regressive behaviour. It is common for children to react to stress by reverting to an earlier stage of development, for example, thumb sucking and bed-wetting. This may have to do with pent up feelings of anger and frustration. Most of these are temporary. However, if you become worried about your child’s behaviour consult your doctor, public health nurse, social worker or the child’s teacher.
Returning to school may be particularly difficult for a child. They may be worried about who has been told and what they should say to other children. Help them to prepare a simple and honest explanation of what has happened.
Sometimes children are teased or can be hurt by insensitive remarks. Children’s concentration in school is usually affected because of the many changes with which they are coping. Talk with your child regularly about how they are finding school and keep in touch with their teacher.