This is one of the conversations we dread the most, particularly with young children, but unfortunately dealing with death is something we cannot shield our children from. Learn how to explain death to your child and deal with feelings of loss.
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When you explain death to your child you can help to address any of their concerns and misunderstandings head on, while also answering their questions, and possibly easing their worries and fears too.
Even the youngest child can pick up on what’s happening around them and observe our behaviour, so it is important to allay their concerns and include them in an age-appropriate manner where possible.
Talk to Your Child About Death
Start with a clear conversation. There should be no grey area about what happened, so it’s best to steer clear of someone having ‘gone away’ or ‘gone to sleep’ as it may in turn trigger a fear in your child over bedtime or separation anxiety when you are apart.
Every child reacts differently to the news of death. Some may cry, some may have an instant list of questions, and some may retreat in silence while they process the news. All you can do right now is comfort your child – and if you don’t know the answers, that’s ok; just answer the best you can.
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Preparing Your Child for a Funeral
Prepare your child for those first few days by explaining, as much as is suitable, what will happen. How there will perhaps be people calling to the house to pay their respects – in particular, explain to your child about any changes to their routine that may cause them any concern. For example, let them know if someone else will be minding them, or if they will be off school for a few days.
When it comes to the funeral, decide what is most suitable for your child. It may not be appropriate to bring young children to a memorial or viewing, however their presence for the funeral may be more fitting. Talk about what will happen, whether there will be prayers, songs, and so on. Explain that it is an opportunity to remember the deceased, and that many people may want to tell stories or talk about their favourite memories.
There may also be language that your child isn’t familiar with – for example if someone offered their “condolences” – so talk it all through and let your child know what to expect. Particular family or religious rituals, burial and cremation may also need an age-appropriate conversation. This is a time to talk about your family’s own beliefs around death.
Having a job to do may help your child get through these difficult days. It could be to pick out a favourite song or poem for the funeral, to find a special photo, or it could be to take part in the funeral procession. Talk to your child about what they would feel most comfortable with, and let them decide whether or not to take part.
Helping Your Child Cope with Grief
In the days, weeks and months to follow, your child may talk a lot about death. About your death, or their death, and it is in no way meant to be upsetting to you, but is in fact a form of reassurance for them. Don’t tell them that it won’t happen, but rather that it is not something they have to worry about right now; in the same way, it is best not to say that death happens only when one is old, as we are all too aware that unfortunately that is not the case.
In our own family, we have gone through the grieving process twice in recent months, with both deaths less than a week apart. Dealing with my seven-year-old’s anguish has been tough. She had questions, lots of questions. About hospitals, cancer, heaven, angels, when she herself would die, and what would happen next – things we hadn’t even thought of ourselves. We did our best to answer her questions and found that, for her, the best we could do was just keep talking. Now, months later, she likes to talk about her favourite memories a lot, and we try to encourage that, despite how hard it can be for us to reminisce.
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Books to Help Explain Death to Your Child
Focussing on these positive, happy memories may make you feel sad, but is a healthy way for your child to deal with death. If you are looking for more resources or a way to get your child to open up, there are several books suited to young children, including the following:
- Michael Rosen’s Sad Book by Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake
- Water Bugs and Dragonflies: Explaining Death to Young Children by Doris Stickney
- I Have a Question About Death: A Book for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder or Other Special Needs by Arlen Grad Gaines and Meredith Englander Polsky
- Tell Me About Heaven, Grandpa Rabbit: A Book to Help Children Come to Terms With Losing Someone Special by Jenny Album
- Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley
- Are You Sad, Little Bear? A Book About Learning to Say Goodbye by Rachel Rivett
- Missing Mummy by Rebecca Cobb
- Always and Forever by Debi Gliori and Alan Durant
- The Day the Sea Went Out and Never Came Back: A Story For Children Who Have Lost Someone They Love by Margot Sunderland
- I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm
Children’s view of death is very different to ours. They are almost methodical in their view of things. It may take some time for the reality of the loss to hit home, and their grief may manifest itself in acting out, difficulty sleeping, a return to bed-wetting, or other behavioural changes.
Encourage your child to talk to you about how they are feeling, reminding them that it is okay to be sad. They may be worried about upsetting you, so make sure to explain that it is a good thing to remember someone they have loved and lost. Time passing doesn’t mean that the person needs to be forgotten.
Help your child preserve their memories by making a photo album or frame of their favourite photos to keep in their room, or have a day writing down all those favourite memories and stories to keep them safe.
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