I was chatting to a friend at the weekend and having recently had some older relatives die, her three year old daughter had started to ask a lot of questions about death. It got me thinking, how do we (or don’t we) talk with our children about death?
Whatever their age, a child’s first experience of a loved one dying is bound to raise thoughts, feelings, questions and maybe fears. Driven by a desire to ‘protect’ our children, we perhaps avoid talking about it. But does this serve instead to instil fear; fear of death, of dying, of loss, of talking about any of it and of upsetting others?
Of course, how you choose to talk to your child about death may differ according to their age, character and developmental stage as well as any faith or beliefs that you hold. But if we want to break the taboo around death, then talking openly and honestly to the next generation strikes me as essential.
Caveat - I am certainly not the expert in this area! There are lots of organisations that can help, I have listed some at the bottom of this page.
Given that children can decide to raise a subject totally unannounced (usually when you are least prepared, in my experience) and the death of a loved one can be very sudden, I have been giving some thought to how we can feel more prepared for these conversations:
Think about the language you will use:
Euphemisms may do more harm than good – explaining to a child that someone has ‘gone to sleep’ may only cause more fears around bedtime, that they, or someone they love may not wake up.
Be ready to show and share your own emotions:
Grief comes with a whole host of emotions and hiding our own emotions from children can make it harder for them to feel comfortable expressing theirs. Allowing your child to see you sad may help to normalise the feelings they are also experiencing.
Consider how might be best to break any news:
Think about who would share the news of a death – this should be someone close to the child/ren and someone who they trust. But it may not be the person most directly impacted by the death, especially if they are likely to find it too hard to deliver.
Perhaps consider giving information in doses so as not to overwhelm the child/ren.
Help them to remember:
Keep talking about loved one’s who have died. This will allow children to remember them, but also to feel they can ask questions as they have them.
Let books help:
There are lots of books which cover death and dying, in an age appropriate way. They may help you open up the subject in a less confronting manner. Have a look in your local library or book shop to find something you think would talk to your child/ren.
Prepare them for the funeral:
Allowing a child to attend a loved one’s funeral can help with their grieving. If you decide it is appropriate for them to attend then using a celebrant can help ensure that the content and tone is created with them in mind. Make your celebrant aware and possibly even involve the child in the process – they may have some stories they want to share, perhaps.
I would love to know your thoughts and experience – what has worked for you, is death something you talk openly with your children about?
Organisations which may be able to help:
Child Bereavement UK – www.childbereavementuk.org
Winston’s Wish - www.winstonswish.org
Young Minds – www.youndminds.org.uk
Cruse – www.cruse.org.uk