Every 22 minutes a parent of a dependent child dies in the UK. 92% of young people will experience a significant bereavement before the age of 16 (Child Bereavement UK, 2019). Yet, preparing our children to cope with the inevitability of loss is often far down the priority list for parents. We fear upsetting them unnecessarily by mentioning death and the questions that will come, for which there may be no concrete (or reassuring) answers. However, in avoiding discussions about death, dying and loss, we deny them the chance to consider these important issues when they are in healthy and happy space. No one conversation will cover it, so it is important that parents take a long-term view to building acceptance in their children and giving them the psychological tools required to navigate future loss. Here are some evidence-based tips that can help future-proof your child and help them become as emotionally resilient as possible.
- Modelling matters
If you talk about death in fearful tones, if you tell your children you are afraid of dying (even if you are), expect them to absorb the fear and adopt it as their own. We can easily transfer anxiety onto our children, so it is important (before they experience the death of loved one), that we have some “little by little” chats about death. Show that you aren’t afraid to talk about it and welcome all of their great questions.
- Watch Your Language
No vagaries, no euphemisms. State the truth, but use age-appropriate and clear language. For example, you might say that: “death is a part of life; one’s body stops working one day and we enter a sleep-like state when we die”. Where language is unclear or the message vague, children will invent ideas (Samuel, 2018). If you tell a child for example that “Grandma has simply gone into the next room”, they might very well go looking for them.
- Let them share their fears and worries
The advice is clear in this regard. It is never a bad idea to let your child open up about their fears and worries (Creswell, 2019). Children need the opportunity to discuss worries, preferably with an appropriate, loving adult. Remember you don’t need to know the answers; you just need to listen. Rather than soothing them, try and coach them into searching for ideas that might alleviate their worries or make them feel better.
- Pre-bereavement preparation
If you suspect that the family pet or a relative is going to die within the coming months, it is very important to recognise this and prepare your children psychologically within this ‘pre-bereavement’ stage. Plant little seeds about what might happen. You might suggest, for example, that “Grandpa is poorly, isn’t she? We think she might die soon, but we don’t know when” (Samuel, 2019).Make sure your child has “things to do” in this phrase that can help alleviate the poorly person’s experience. Children are never short of ideas. What they can do to cheer Grandpa up? With older children, they often enjoy creating music playlists or creating photo memories. The key thing is that children have a role to play at this stage, that keeps them positively and proactively involved.
- Funerals matter
Some parents opt for children not attending funerals for fear of upsetting them, but the truth is, funerals can be healing for children if they ‘get’ what is happening around them. However, it can be terrifying to meet tearful adults who constantly shake your hand, without having anything to say in return. It is can be scary being made to read or sing something when you feel sad. It can be scary seeing your parent crying their eyes out, when you have never witnessed this before. By taking them to where the funeral will be held before it happens, they will be more comfortable on the day. By allocating a trusted person to take care of your child (if you anticipate being upset), this can help. By giving your child a choice in whether they want to participate or not in the ceremony, they will feel more in control.
- Grieving takes time and is different for everyone
It is hard to anticipate how children will react to grief. As the psychotherapist, Samuels states (2019), they will “jump in and out of puddles”; one minute seeming fine, the next bereft. This is normal. Be patient, kind and understanding, accepting of their sadness and allowing them to experience it. We can’t make it better, but we can always be consistent, warm and loving. Normal routine can be reassuring for children, so don’t be afraid to keep going with the regular family schedule.
- Children need places for grief to ‘land’
Following death, children can benefit from being able to access a special room at home or see a shelf featuring photos of the loved one who has passed. The grief has to land somewhere. Model to your children that you can ‘make time’ to grieve each week (perhaps remembering the loved one) at a particular time each week as a family. Bring gratitude into these conversations over time. Collate happy, joyful memories of the loved one, remembering all the things you loved about them. You can do this on the sofa one evening or, even better, on long, weekly walks in nature together.
- Be retrospective
As the months/years pass, model to them that you might be feeling a little better about your loss and feel that you are healing. Tell them that you are proud of them and reflect together on what you have all learned from this experience of loss. Reflect on your own resilience as a family and gives yourselves a big, metaphorical pat on the back.
More information about the author – Dr Kathy Weston is one of the nation’s experts on parental engagement in children’s lives and learning. She is a motivational speaker in schools, co-author of “Engaging Parents” and produces a monthly podcast called #GetaGrip. Visit Kathy’s website here
Child Bereavement UK (2019) See: https://www.childbereavementuk.org/
Creswell, C. and Willetts, L. (2019) How to Talk to your Child about their Fears and Worries. See: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B06XGJ17SL/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1
Samuel, J. (2018) Grief Works. Penguin. See: https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/296/296167/grief-works/9780241270776.html