Supporting children who are facing the death of a loved one.
When someone who a child knows well dies, their world changes in an instant. The temptation is to try to protect children from the effects of grief and facing the stark reality of death. However, the reality is that children need to know about death and to be supported in helping them work out responses and to deal with their own grief. This is complicated by the fact that those who care for children are grieving themselves at the same time as trying to support children.
Ensuring that children are told about the death using the correct language is important. ‘death’ and ‘died’ are stark words, but using terms as ‘passed’, ‘passed on’, ‘passed away’, ‘fell asleep’ are very unhelpful because they suggest that the person is only temporarily gone – or that they may wake up. Saying that someone is ‘asleep’ is also unhelpful because children can associate sleeping with dying and it can create fear for themselves and others.
Children need to know that sadness and crying are ok and that talking about how we are feeling and asking questions are good – even if we don’t have all the answers.
Listen really carefully to the question the child has asked, if you are unsure of what they are asking get them to repeat it, then answer it. If a child asks ‘what happens when someone dies’ we can give them a full, detailed answer, explaining about the body, funerals, the home, and a hundred other things, but the child may simply want to know that the person who died is safe and that someone will be looking after them.
Children need to feel part of the family – in age appropriate ways. The danger of excluding children from grief and funeral planning is that they can feel pushed out, excluded and go on to have a lack of trust in adults ‘why did you stop me from going to grandad’s funeral? He was my grandad!?”
Help children to remember:
• Create a memory box - let the child gather together some nick nacks or items that belonged to loved one – a book, magazine, a mug, a pipe, jewellery… Decorate the box. Or make a little box out of fimo / air drying clay, make tiny things the person who died liked and put them in the box.
• Create a memory book – annotate photos of the loved one to create a collection of photos. The child can add their own drawings and writing as appropriate.
• Memory jar – on post it notes, write memories and little anecdotes – this can be added to over time and then, when the family are feeling sad, or on a special occasion such as a birthday. Post it notes could include things like the loved one’s favourite colour, food, tv programme, book, funny things they said or did, I remember when….
These activities all give lots of opportunities to talk while making. Space to talk about everything is the most important thing for children.