How to talk to children about death and dying?

How to talk to children about death and dying

It can feel challenging to speak with children about death, but being open and honest can help them grieve. Daniela Iacovella from Child Bereavement UK answers common questions about death, dying and grief, from language choices to terminal illness to explaining a funeral.

How do you begin a conversation about death with a child?

With the best of intentions, parents and caregivers can feel like it’s better not to talk about death with children. But actually, it’s better to introduce the topic sooner rather than later. When they’re very young, a great way to do that is with things that exist in nature. For instance, you could say that the leaf has been living on the tree and then when it dies it falls to the ground.

Kids of a certain age can be quite curious about death, especially with insects. So those are the really good opportunities to start those initial conversations.

What language should you use when talking to a child about death?

We suggest trying to use the words ‘dead’, ‘died’, and ‘dying’. Euphemisms like ‘passed away’ or ‘gone to heaven’ can be confusing — for young children, especially.

We often hear that families don’t want to use those words, because they don’t want to scare young people. But there can be a lot of confusion around what ‘dead’ means. Up until the ages of seven or eight, children don’t always understand that death is permanent. So try to be clear and honest and allow space for questions. Keep in mind that what children imagine can be worse than the truth.

What common questions should you try to be prepared for?

Children might ask if they are going to die themselves, or what happens after we die. Clarifying what they might mean by that is important, because it could be that they just want to know where the body has gone.

There might be questions like ‘when they are coming back’ or ‘when can we go see them?’ That’s a really common one with younger children. Heaven can seem the same as going to Sainsbury’s or Tesco, so why can’t we go to heaven?

Those questions are difficult to answer at times, but it’s really important that we try not to shy away from them. That makes children think, ‘this isn’t something we talk about’ and continues the whole taboo around death.

How do you approach situations where someone is going to die, particularly someone close like a parent?

Again, it’s helpful being honest. You can sit them down and say, ‘daddy is sick, he’s got an illness, and because of this his body can’t work very well at the moment.’ It’s important to reassure them that nothing they’ve done has caused this, especially with younger children. Because they might think, ‘the last time I talked with dad I was a naughty girl, and now he’s sick.’

Be very clear about what’s happening to help and allow them time to process what you’ve told them. Let them know that you’re there if they have questions or want to talk. If you don’t know the answer then it’s okay to say that. Young people can tell when something’s not right in the family, so it’s best to be open.

Do you have any specific advice for healthcare professionals like doctors and nurses who might be seeing children whose parents are dying?

I think doctors and nurses are in a difficult position because they’re so busy. A lot of the feedback we’ve been given from families and young people is to really keep lines of communication open. You want professionals to be as honest as possible — not to give false hope, and to make sure that any information shared is understandable without too much medical jargon.

Also, give children the opportunity to ask questions and have as much time with their parents as possible. Let them have some control over the caregiving, even if it’s just adjusting a pillow or getting something for them to eat. When medical staff are able to include the family in things like that, it can make a significant difference.

How do you tell a child that someone has already died?

It’s about being honest and direct. Let them know you’re sharing any information you have and, if you don’t know something, you’ll find out. You can also ask children ‘what do you think’ if you don’t know the answer. That’s a really good way to let kids be creative and feel like they have some control.

For parents, be mindful of all the different reactions that children might have. You might get children who burst out crying or they might not show any immediate reaction. There’s no ‘right’ way to respond and kids need to hear that.

Be open about how you’re feeling as well. As difficult as it might be, it’s a real opportunity for adults to role model grieving and for kids to look at that and learn.

Are there any specific things that people should keep in mind when the death has been sudden and unexpected?

It’s important to make sure that they feel safe and routines are really good for that — like maybe going back to school. Encourage them to talk and draw out their feelings. Sometimes children draw things that might be perceived as quite confronting, like the actual car accident for instance. But that’s just their way of trying to make sense of it.

On the other side of things, it’s also so important to just have some fun. This gets lost in bereavement sometimes. Kids might feel that it’s not okay to have fun while still grieving, but it absolutely is.

How would you talk about subjects that children may not understand very well like terminal illness, suicide and homicide?

It’s easy to shy away from them because we want to protect children, but it’s really important to try and be open because being shielded can cause trust issues later on. If young people aren’t told the truth about this very significant thing, then how can they possibly trust someone with anything else?

We’ve got some great guidance on [Child Bereavement UK’s] website, but it’s really about keeping to the facts. Even saying ‘suicide’ and defining it as when somebody takes their own life can be helpful. It might be difficult, but that way kids can go ‘right, that’s what that word means.’

With conversations like this, it’s not just a one off thing, it’s probably going to be a process. It has to be appropriate to the situation and your child’s development stage.

How do you explain a funeral to a child?

Just making sure that they know what to expect is really important. Also, depending on their ages, to reiterate what ‘dead’ means. Because if they don’t have that basic understanding it can make all of the rituals really concerning. They might think, ‘how is grandma going to breathe if she’s in a box?’

The most important thing we hear from children is that they at least want to have the choice to be involved. Also, let them know that it’s okay if they change their mind. They might come to the funeral service and then halfway think ‘actually, I don’t want to be here anymore.’ So make sure that you have a back-up plan if they do want to leave.

How can you help a child grieve?

I really love the idea of giving them permission to grieve. We hear from young people all the time that they’re looking to their parents. So if a parent isn’t being honest about how they feel, then the child thinks, ‘that’s how you grieve.’ Parents can let them know it’s okay to get upset, and also that everybody grieves differently.

We hear from young people all the time that they want to remember the person as well. Even though a parent has died, he’s still their dad, she’s still their mum. So how can they continue to honour that person’s memory? That’s a very personal thing, but having conversations will give them an opportunity to think about it. Make sure that they’ve got a safe space to express any feelings or ask questions.

Is it normal for children to show grief in slightly different ways than adults?

The main difference we tend to see between adults and children is that children move more quickly between grieving and the restoration of future focus. It can be actually quite confronting for adults to witness, because the child is playing one minute and then, all of a sudden, they’re bursting into tears.

It’s difficult to make sense of, but maybe they’ve just remembered something and it’s overwhelmed them — then five minutes later, they might be fine and playing with their friends again. For adults, that kind of process tends to take longer.

How can adults support their kids as this is happening, especially if they’re grieving themselves?

Again, it’s about being a role model and, as a family, keeping lines of communication open.

It can be very difficult when you’re grieving as a parent, so make sure that you get extra support if you need it.

It’s also about creating rituals where there are safe spaces to talk. So maybe having a jar of thoughts where, once a week, you get together and pull out questions or concerns you’ve had. Knowing that there’s an allotted time to talk makes it feel a little bit safer.

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