Supporting Children who are preparing for or have already experienced the death of someone they loved is never easy, particularly when you are experiencing this yourself.
It is our instinct to want to protect children from the impact of anything that could cause them harm and dealing with a loved one who has a serious illness or the death of a relative is not something any of us want for our children.
At Woking & Sam Beare Hospice we recognise the importance of working with you and your family to find the best ways to help children and teenagers come to terms with their own emotional distress and bereavement.
- Avoiding discussion about death can make a child feel very isolated and frightened. Encourage your child to talk and try to listen carefully to what they say.
- If possible any new information is best given by you. But professionals may be able to support you in this.
- Children often resort to ‘imagining’. When they have gaps in the information they are given, they will create their own version of what happened. So it is important to give clear, age appropriate information.
- Use simple, straight forward words, like ‘death’ or ‘dying’. Phrases like ‘gone to sleep’ or ‘lost’ can be confusing and create deeper anxiety for children. They may think that the person who died will wake up or be found. Tell them in simple language what caused the death.
- Check with your children how much they have understood. Sometimes we think we have explained things clearly but they may not have heard things in the way we intended
- For some children the realisation that not everyone will die of old age can bring about anxiety. They may become concerned about other members of the family, becoming clingy and anxious about separation, even for a short time. If this happens, reassure them that most people do live a long time.
- Magical thinking—Sometimes children may blame themselves when someone dies. They may think, ‘if only I had not made Daddy cross’ or ‘it was because I was naughty’. It can help to reassure them that this isn’t true, just by simply saying, ‘there was nothing anyone could do to stop daddy from dying, nothing you said or did made this happen’.
- Be honest and open, encourage your children to talk and ask questions. It might be necessary to repeat conversations or discussions over time.
- Children may ask the same question several times. Be patient and consistent with your answers.
- Keep your child’s school informed. If your child’s teacher or school staff have the right information they can give the right support.
- Don’t be afraid to show that you are grieving too. It is impossible for an adult to stay strong all the time. Sharing your sadness can give children the message ‘it is OK to cry’. You can be sad together, but reassure children that you will take care of them.
- Listen Carefully
- Be as honest as possible, it’s OK to not have all the answers
- Something's may be uncomfortable to talk about, taking a deep breath and saying ‘this feels uncomfortable to say but….’ may help, be honest so young people can learn to be honest about their feelings too
- Be clear and direct in the language saying ‘passed away’ or ’lost’ can be confusing. It is OK to use the word ‘died’
- Sharing our sadness helps young people to express theirs in healthy ways. Crying is normal, natural and healthy.
Many people think that babies and very young children are unlikely to be affected by the loss of a significant person. But babies do form attachments and they will be aware of the absence of that person. However, they have no concept of death and the passing of time. For young children, they may not understand that death is permanent, and can expect a person to return.
It may be useful to explain that their loved one no longer needs to eat, breathe or wear clothes.
Some children may talk about someone who has died, and then ask if they will be coming to their birthday party.
Children may appear to jump in and out of their sadness. This is normal and doesn’t mean they don’t care, but it can be confusing for adults. Just because they can play normally doesn’t mean they are not grieving.
Some children will complain of mystery illnesses, such as tummy aches, headaches, and may return to bed wetting. These are all ways of demonstrating grief.
Adolescence can already be a time of great confusion, and anxiety for some young people. Bereavement at this time can have a considerable impact on their lives, adding to the sense of insecurity, isolation and confusion about their role in the world.
For some teenagers their friendship groups may become more important and parents can be the last ones to know how their children are feeling. But they still need to know that you are there for them, and are willing to support and listen.
Though they may appear to be coping it is important to remember they are not yet adults.
Support for children experiencing anticipatory grief and preparing for bereavement.
Sometimes it is easier for a child to talk to someone outside the family or those closest to them. They may be reluctant to share their feelings for fear of adding to your worries or grief.
Counselling offers a non-judgemental safe space where they can explore and come to terms with difficult feelings and emotions. Counselling sessions are arranged at a mutually agreed time and venue.
Sometimes, when we are preparing for a bereavement family communication may falter. Our family therapists can help re-open healthy lines of communication and support between family members.
Depending on the age of your child there are many books available to help with bereavement, here are some suggestions:
Water bugs and Dragonflies, Explaining death to young children – Doris Stickney
Badgers Parting Gifts – Susan Varley
The Invisible String - Patrice Karst
As Big as it Gets: Supporting a Child When a Parent is Seriously Ill) - Julie A. Stokes
Muddles, Puddles and Sunshine ,Activity Book to Help When Someone Has Died - Diana Crossley
The Memory Tree – Britta Teckentrup
Mum's Jumper – Jayde Perkin
What on Earth Do You Do When Someone Dies? – Trevor Romain
Sometimes Life Sucks: When Someone You Love Dies – Molly Carlisle