Conversations about death with children

Pam's dad Herbie

Pam’s dad Herbie

At the end of Dying Matters Awareness Week 2016 here are some thoughts about having conversations about death with children.

Thanks to our friends at Winston’s Wish for throwing in their thoughts too about the benefits and challenges of conversations about death with children.

The death of a parent or sibling is one of the most fundamental losses a child will ever face. We know that if childhood grief is not dealt with, it can lead to a variety of short and long-term problems.

Through the families we support, we see children who have been bereaved struggling with their emotional health, with feelings of anger and anxiety. Such difficult feelings can make the, already difficult, journey through school more challenging and mean that it is harder to make friends, achieve and most importantly feel happy again.

Feelings of Grief

Strong and sometimes confusing feelings of grief are a normal, appropriate response to loss; these including feelings of sadness, anger, guilt and anxiety.

The impact of grief can take far longer than other friends and extended family may realise. Some parents may withdraw emotionally, making it difficult to understand their children’s needs; others put their own grief on hold so that they can focus on the child – both responses are normal.

For a child, grief may resurface as their cognitive ability changes and with life events. Unlike adults, who stay with their grief, children often jump in and out of their grief. This means that they may initially be upset about their loss but may then appear to be fine for a period of time and then may become upset again, and so on. This can be very confusing both for children and the adults who care for them and will need time and understanding to help process their loss.

The importance of conversation is integral for children following bereavement. By talking about death – even the most difficult aspects – children are able to understand that this is something they are able to cope with.

How Children Grieve

Some think children do not grieve, simply because they respond differently to adults. Children will respond to grief and loss according to their age and developmental stage.

Many children need time and space to learn about death and then some time to make sense of it, as well as expressing their feelings about what has happened. Children may also worry about those that are left behind and become very anxious about separation from remaining parents or carers.

Children will pick up on the emotions of other family members and can become very unsettled, if they are not given support and helped to understand appropriately what is going on.

It can be hard for young children to understand the permanence of death. They need clear explanations that are repeated, in order to help them begin to grow towards an understanding.

Conversations about death with children

Conversations about death with children can be difficult, but it’s incredibly important to have these conversations. They will help children to develop an understanding of death and dying before they have to face the loss of someone they love.

Conversations can allow children express their emotions; be it sadness, anger, fear and so on. It’s important to open up the conversations about death and to allow children who are grieving to puddle jump.

Some children may be scared to talk about their feelings or about the loved one they have lost, so don’t wait for the child to talk about the person who has died. It’s important to bring the person who has died into conversation, allowing children to make their memories as strong as possible and everlasting.

Children learn by observing others, so appropriately sharing your own feelings helps children make sense of their own experiences.

Be open and honest about the situation and use story books to help explain death and dying if needed. Talk about how life and death go together and that it is natural to grieve.

For children, two very important needs are for adequate information and for their anxieties to be addressed. Often misinformation or misunderstanding exacerbates fears. For example, if someone who has died is described as being ‘asleep’, a child will be frightened to go to sleep themselves.

Important things for children to understand about death include that death is permanent, the body of someone who has died does not feel heat or colt, does not need food or drink and cannot feel pain. Though it is important to respect spiritual beliefs it is helpful to make sure that they have not caused confusion in a child.

Lastly, remember that nothing you say is going to make it worse – the worst has already happened.


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