Helping a child deal with bereavement
At some point in a child’s life, they’re likely to experience the death of a loved one, most usually a grandparent or a pet. Understanding death can be hard for a child, and how they react or cope often depends on their age. With all round parenting advice, support and guidance, you can help your child come to terms with what has happened and cope with their loss.
We have just suffered a bereavement in our family and telling the children was probably the hardest part.
No matter what the age of your child, if someone dies, always try to be honest when explaining what happened. Children process information differently according to their age, so how you explain death to a four-year old will differ compared to explaining to a ten-year old.
For young children under six, it’s best to use very basic terms when talking about death, such as ‘the body stopped working’. Avoid using phrases such as they ‘went to sleep’ or they’ve ‘gone away’, as these will be hard to understand, and may confuse your child or make them fearful for falling asleep themselves or someone ‘going away on holiday’.
When I broke the news to my children (5, 9 and 14) I told them all together that the relative had been very poorly and had gone to live on a cloud. There were tears but suddenly my daughter (the 5 year old) said ‘Lets not be sad, if she has gone to live on a cloud then she’ll be with Bootz and having fun.’ Bootz is a family dog that died a few year ago that we had also said was now living on a cloud. That cheered us all up and make us realise kids are strong in their own way.
Youngsters from the age of six upwards start to understand that death is final, although they often personify death as a bogeyman or ghost, and may even believe that if you make a wish, it stops others from dying.
Teenagers will start to think more about the meaning of life, and will understand that everyone dies, no matter how good or bad they were.
Whatever your child’s age, be prepared to answer any questions they have, in as best a way as you can.
Encourage your child to express their feelings about the death of a loved one, and tell them that it’s completely normal to feel very sad and even angry that this person is no longer here. Try not to hide your own feelings of grief at this time, as this will show children that it’s OK to express how they feel in front of others.
Children may not react in the same way as an adult when dealing with bereavement, and don’t be surprised if you don’t see them cry. That’s not to say they don’t miss the person, they’re just trying to deal with their loss in different ways.
A young child may suffer from sleep problems, may become withdrawn or may start drawing lots of pictures of the person who died. They may become very clingy towards you, and worry that the same thing will happen to someone else. Children may also suffer angry outbursts, have trouble concentrating or experience random aches and pains. Try to reassure them at all times.
These are all normal reactions, and hopefully, they’ll ease in time. Try to get as much support as you can to help your child, whether through reading age-specific books about death or encouraging them to write a diary about how they feel, or even sharing feelings with other youngsters who have been through the same thing. Your GP or a counsellor can also be useful at this time, so don’t be afraid to seek support.
I told my children at the time that we can talk about the relative at any time they wish and we often talk freely of fun memories, it seems to have helped them to come to terms with everything.