Talking about death

How children and young people experience grief

Children experience grief differently to adults. For adults, it feels like having to wade through rivers of grief, and they may get stuck in the middle of a wide sea of grieving.  For children, their grieving can seem more like leaping in and out of puddles. First reactions may range from great distress to seeming not to be interested.  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.

Talking to your children 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, remembering memories and stories, and sharing feelings – is one of the most important things you can do to help your child as they journey through grief.  One of their greatest fears is that they will forget the person who died.

When children ask difficult questions, there is no automatic need to give a long explanation. It is often best to start by asking: ‘What do you think?’, and then building on their answer.

Younger children may be confused by some of the everyday expressions that people use when someone dies, such as describing the person as ‘lost’, ‘gone’ or ‘passed away’.  It is best to keep language simple and direct.  Saying that someone has ‘died’ or is ‘dead’ is honest, helps to avoid confusion, and encourages acceptance.

Some feedback we have had from children
When young children hear answers such as ‘we’ve lost your mother ‘ they may feel confused wondering why no one is looking for her.  Similarly answers such as ‘Granny has gone to sleep or passed away in her sleep’ may prompt a child to worry about going to sleep at night keeping them (and parents) awake.

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 tell their children what they believe about life after death.  Some families may believe in a heaven or another 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.

Young children sometimes misunderstand what these ideas mean.   Children have told us that if the person who has died has gone to heaven or is watching over them that 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’.

Our national Helpline offers support, information and guidance to anyone caring for or supporting a bereaved child or young person.

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