Our top tips on speaking to children about death, dying and grief
How can I talk to children about death and grief? Honesty is the best policy…
“Grief is one of the most challenging things that we all go through and when coupled with caring for children, it can be even harder,” says Emma Lupton, who manages our Candle Children and Young People’s Bereavement Service.
Knowing how to best to support a child or young person when someone they love has died is a huge worry for parents and carers. That’s why, at St Christopher’s, we offer support for any child or young person from 0-18 years old who has experienced a bereavement and is living within Bromley, Croydon, Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark.
We offer both individual and group counselling sessions, information sessions for parents and carers, advice and training for professionals, and have a telephone advice service which is open to anyone.
“We work closely with parents, carers and the child or young person to understand how they want to be supported,” says Emma. “Our team come from a range of different backgrounds and as well as talking therapy we use play, craft, art and music to help children express themselves.
“For us it is about championing the child or young person’s needs and empowering families to overcome their fears and speak openly about the bereavement,” she continues.
It is natural for parents/carers to want to protect children but it is so important to talk openly as, if we don’t, the death can become taboo or shrouded in mystery and for children this might result in misunderstandings about the death, and children’s imaginings can be more frightening than the reality.
Most children and young people do not need formal bereavement support to help them cope with the death of a loved one. Yet we know this can still be a very difficult time to navigate – especially for the adults around them.
We’ve pulled together some tips to help you have those conversations and support children and young people with their grief.
- Look after yourself – We know that children tend to cope better if their parent or carer is managing okay. Think of it like putting on your oxygen mask first if you experience issues on a plane – you can only support those around you if you’re looking after your own needs, and please don’t feel guilty about this.
- Be honest – children and young people need an honest and age appropriate explanation for how the person died. Use concrete, factual language such as ‘death’ and ‘dying’. Sometimes we try to protect children by using phrases such as ‘gone to sleep’ but this can be problematic as younger children do not understand the permanence of death and may even fear going to sleep. We also know children try to fill in the gaps if they don’t have all the facts which can be very scary.
- Don’t say anything that cannot be unravelled in the future – if the circumstances of the death are particularly traumatic, then be careful not to give a false story. Instead give a simple account that you can add more detail to as the child gets older. It is important for you to maintain trust.
- Give children a choice to attend the funeral – this is an important human ritual that helps us to grieve, children included. If children are prepared and know what to expect, it can help them to attend.
- Normalise feelings – reassure them that it is okay to feel a range of feelings from sadness, anger, despair or even numbness. We all respond in different ways and not everyone will cry – but that doesn’t mean they are not upset. You might also see a change in your child’s behaviour – try to see this as a communication of feelings rather than them misbehaving.
- Try to maintain routines – at a time when their world will feel inconsistent and unsafe maintaining routines can provide much needed safety and stability.
- Try not to judge – we all respond to grief in different ways. For teenagers it can be helpful for them to go out and socialise with friends. This doesn’t mean they don’t care or aren’t sad. Young children jump between emotions quickly – from sadness and despair about their loss to playing and laughing five minutes later. This can be disorientating for parents/carers but know it is normal and healthy.
- Be led by them – by checking in and allowing them to guide the conversation and support you will be able to support them in the way(s) they find most helpful, for example ask the child or young person who they want to know at school and how they would like to mark special days or anniversaries.
If you feel you or the young person you are supporting needs more specialised support then please do call us on 020 8768 4533.
:: This article was from our Autumn/Winter 2023 issue of Connect magazine. To read the full magazine, or to sign up to receive future editions, please click here.
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