Children feel similar emotions to adults when they lose a loved one, but they may not be able to express it in the same way.
Instead, it may jump out seemingly at random, with outbursts of anger, excitement or sadness. They may sometimes appear to accept the death, and later become distressed and upset. It is important they are given the time, space and support they need to manage this.
Explaining death to children and young people
Because they do not understand the concept of death - what it really means, the effects of it, and that it happens to everyone - they need help to process the concepts in a clear way. For example, our Child Bereavement Service recommends that the cause of death (in simple terms) should be shared with children, so they are not at risk of blaming themselves. Being made aware that everyone eventually dies, but normally not until they are very old, can help address the worry that everyone else around them may also die soon. The words “death” or “dead” should be used, rather than phrases like “gone to sleep”, “lost” or “gone”.
The honest and direct language reduces confusion, and gives the child or young person all the information that you have. It may feel uncomfortable, or like you’re giving them more to worry about, but in reality you’re taking away all the things they could invent on their own when you tell them the truth:
“I have something very sad and difficult to tell you. **** has died. Do you remember I told you they had cancer and that the doctors and nurses were doing everything they could to help them get better? Well, even though they tried really hard, their illness was too strong and their body could not get better. Their lungs stopped working and their heart stopped beating and they died.”
How children and young people think about death
The age, or stage, that your child is at will have an impact on how they understand and cope with the death of a loved one. Our Child Bereavement Service has compiled How to explain death to children and young people and help them cope, a guide that explains how you can best support your child through a bereavement, how to deal with a funeral and provides a framework for how the child may be processing the death based on their age:
Children experience feelings of pain and loss. They will protest loudly and may search repeatedly for the deceased. They need a consistent routine, cuddles and hugs and they need to be told repeatedly that the person will not be returning. It is important that special memories and photographs are kept for the children as they grow older.
Children at this stage think very literally, so use of language is extremely important.
Statements such as, ‘‘gone for a long sleep’’ and ‘’we’ve lost him/her’’ can often cause confusion. They still do not understand that death cannot be reversed, and need to be told repeatedly that the dead cannot come back.
At this age, children may believe that their actions can impact on the world around them and that, in some ways, they may have caused the death. They need to be told that people die for a variety of reasons, but not because of anything we say.
Children at this age will often act out through play what is happening around them. They need their questions answered openly, honestly and simply. It is also important to maintain a consistent routine.
Children can usually understand that death is irreversible and universal. They will ask frequent questions about death and may become preoccupied with thoughts of death. They may sometimes feel responsible for the surviving members and they need to be allowed to be children, not overwhelmed with adult responsibilities.
It helps if the child can explore feelings of guilt and responsibility and that their questions are answered openly and honestly. It is important that they get support at school, as often children who are bereaved feel different. They often experience bullying at school because of this. They may have temper tantrums, sleep disturbance, nightmares, and also may act younger than their age.
At this stage, children usually understand that death is irreversible, universal and has a cause. Communication can become difficult and grief can be expressed in terms of physical aches and pains or challenging behaviour.
They need the opportunity to talk to a trusted adult. They need reassurance about changes in lifestyle, for example the money situation and whether they can remain in their house. Also they need support at school in dealing with peer groups, and they may be more vulnerable to bullying.
Teenagers are particularly vulnerable as at this stage they try to solve problems themselves and find it difficult to seek help and support from adults.
They understand the concept of death, but may not have the emotional maturity to deal with it. It is normal for adolescents to have difficulty talking to their parents, but they need the opportunity to talk to trusted adults or peers. School can provide security and routine, however, it can also be a place where they feel isolated, different and have difficulties with school work. They may feel overwhelmed by exams and coursework.
Adolescents need choice when it comes to the funeral and subsequent life changes. At the same time they should not be burdened with adult responsibilities, for example ‘’Be strong for your mother’’ or ‘’You’re the man of the house now.’’
Funerals and grieving
Rituals often provide comfort and can involve a wake, funeral, burial or cremation with a gathering or meal afterwards. This is an opportunity to share stories and memories of our loved one where we can laugh, cry and remember.
If you are not able to view the body or attend a service, it can be difficult to accept the reality of the death. If it is not possible for a child or young person to attend some suggestions from the Children’s Bereavement Service are:
- talk children through what happened at the service
- some venues allow a live stream so that people at home can watch the funeral
- where possible photographs can be taken to show children and young people to help them understand what happens at a funeral
- keepsakes from the funeral service can be very meaningful for children. For example, some flowers from the tributes to press and keep; a leaf from one of the trees in the grounds; a pebble from the surrounding area; the order of service
- children can participate by contributing to some of the choices within the short ceremony. For example, they could choose a piece of music, select a poem, or suggest flowers, write and/or draw cards to be placed on or in the coffin or choose a toy or something meaningful to be placed with the person’s body
Things for parents to watch for
When a child or young person experiences the death of someone they care about, there are certain behaviours you can be on the lookout for.
Whatever the change, it may be a sign that your child is struggling to make sense of these new and strange times. It’s also important to remember that being quieter doesn’t always mean your child is doing OK. It could be a sign that they deal with changes by being more withdrawn and introverted.
Talking to your child in a supportive way - free of negativity or judgement - about the changes you’ve noticed in them can make them feel understood by you. If you can show them that you understand that things are tough, and that you want to help them get through this, they may be able to open up to you more honestly.
Our Children’s Bereavement Service recommends:
- picking your communication moment carefully. Maybe when your child is having a morning snack, or while you are sitting quietly on the sofa together, or during a quiet-time before bed
- ask your child how they are with the situation. Listen to them
- don’t ask lots of questions
- gently speak about any differences you’ve noticed in how they’ve been
- if they’re reluctant to talk, you can name some of the changes that other people are coping with and the things they are worried about
You are doing your best supporting your children or young person, and that is all they need. It’s important to remember that you’re grieving too, and you also need to take care of yourself.
We recommend that you:
- try to stay emotionally connected with others using text, email and messages as well as via social media and phone calls
- allow yourself to feel even though it is painful
- keep talking to those who are closest to you even if they are physically far away. Try to phone someone each day
- keep to routines such as mealtimes, getting up time and getting washed and dressed as well as bed time.
- try to get outside for some fresh air
- check in with your children and young people
- understand that your children and young people dip in and out of their emotions quickly. They will set their own pace
- allow children and young people to connect with other family, cousins as well as friends
- limit the amount of news and social media you consume while feeling sad as it can increase feelings of distress
- be tolerant and kind to yourself