You might feel inclined to protect a child or young person from death but honesty is best so if there’s a chance to prepare them, do.
If there’s an impending death in the household or family, a child will quickly pick up something’s going on and silence or denial is not helpful – it’s just confusing. Talk in simple terms: use the words ‘dead’ and ‘dying’. Explain things in advance.
The organisation Understanding Childhood advises on plain talk: ‘Try to explain what they will see… “the body is in a box that gets buried in a hole in the ground” or “it goes into a fire and the ashes of the body are sprinkled on the ground”. Let them be involved as much as they want – visiting, preparing arrangements, picking elements of the funeral or ceremony – favourite songs, flowers – going to to funeral.
It’s important for your child to feel that you are strong enough to bear whatever they want to talk about and answer their questions. Just listening to their worries, being honest, showing care is the best thing you can do. Loving exchanges will help you both. Minimise disruptions to their care.
Children may be more ready and willing to talk than adults. However, like adults, they will all respond differently. Their age, stage and experience will affect their understanding and response. Like adults, they will slip in and out of grief. They may go from tearful to demanding. They might seem heartless – “can I have her room…” It doesn’t mean they don’t care or feel loss. Children under two may not be able to express loss but will feel it if they were attached to someone. Adolescents may retreat or regress – behave like a younger child, they may seem detached or angry.
Be prepared to tell the story over and answer questions over and over again.
It can be a comfort for a sibling experiencing loss to have a keepsake – a photograph or treasured belonging from a brother or sister who has died.
Remember to talk to the school so that teachers can offer support and understand any unusual behaviour. It’s important too that they know your values around this and how you talk to your child about it, to avoid confusing messages from different adults about death, life after death, faith.
Children who have experienced or witnessed a dramatic death – accident or trauma – may need specialist help. Talk to your GP as a starting point or contact the Children’s Team at the Traumatic Stress Clinic in London: 020 7530 3666.
For children and young people who’re experiencing death
See our page Ask Amber – our champion for children and young people – to ask a question or share views.