As parents, we want to protect our children from pain and sadness, but that’s not always possible, and it isn’t healthy either.
Experts now agree that it’s far better for children to be included and involved in the grieving process than to be protected from it. So what’s the best way to do that? Here’s a plan to help…
Be honest and use simple language
Explain gently what has happened, but pick your words very carefully. Try to use the word ‘dead’ or ‘died’ rather than euphemisms, which may seem kinder, but are actually confusing. Slipped away/gone to sleep/gone to heaven/passed away, etc., don’t give a clear enough explanation. If Granny has slipped away, when is she coming back? If she’s gone to sleep, surely she will wake up?
The same applies to describing an illness. If you say ‘Daddy had a heart attack’, they may wonder who attacked his heart. ‘Granny had a stroke’ could also frighten them. If you stroke them at bedtime, will they die too?
WARNING: Well-meaning adults sometimes tell children their loved one is ‘looking down on them and watching them.’ Whilst their intention is to comfort the child, it often has the opposite effect.
Children don’t want someone to see if they’re being naughty or rude! Be careful if you talk about a dead person’s spirit too. Children get spirits and ghosts mixed up. Who wants a ghost stalking them day and night?
Don’t worry if…
1. You cry in front of your child
It’s perfectly OK to cry, and show children that you’re upset, but make sure they understand why, or they may think it’s their fault and get scared. ‘I’m crying because I’m sad about Daddy’, is all that’s needed.
2. They don’t seem very bothered
Some children, especially young ones, appear to take the news of a death ‘very well.’ By this, we mean they don’t cry, or seem visibly upset. But don’t let this initial reaction fool you into thinking they aren’t bothered, because it’s fairly likely they are, but don’t know how to express it.
Look out for changes in behaviour – tantrums, bed-wetting, sleeping and/or eating problems and clinginess are all signs they’re upset, but don’t know how to say it.
Young children may complain of a tummy ache because physical pain is easier to describe than emotional pain. Others may behave unusually well. Older children may start doing badly at school because they can’t concentrate.
REMEMBER: Children don’t do long periods of sadness. Instead, they plunge suddenly and dramatically into ‘puddles’ of grief, during which they may cry and seem inconsolable. A few minutes later they jump out of the ‘puddle’ and ask if they can have a biscuit.
3. They ask awkward questions
‘Will Daddy be back by Christmas?’ ‘Will Granny come to my birthday party?’ ‘Can I go and visit her in heaven?’ Heartbreaking though it is, these are very common questions for children under 6 to ask, because they find it very difficult to understand that death is forever.
Gently remind your child what has happened. ‘Daddy won’t be coming back, sweetheart, because he has died. But he’s in heaven/in your heart forever. Now do you want to talk about anything with me?’
Coping with a funeral
A family funeral is a very important event, and the days when children didn’t attend for fear of them getting upset, are long gone.
However, don’t be too casual about it. Make sure you’ve explained exactly what will happen beforehand, so they don’t get any nasty shocks or surprises when they see the coffin or visit the cemetery.
Make sure they understand that it’s a very special occasion, which may be sad and happy at the same time: ‘It’s sad because we miss the person who died, but happy because they aren’t suffering anymore/are in heaven.’
Don’t worry if the entire day passes without them shedding a tear, or if they misbehave, laugh, or tell you they’re bored. These are all perfectly normal reactions.
Don’t stop talking about a loved one because you don’t want to upset your children, or you’re frightened of breaking down in front of them. It will upset them more if they think you have forgotten.
Instead, talk about them in normal conversation, share funny stories, look at photos. Help them make a memory box containing precious things like postcards, photographs, letters, football tickets, etc.
Encourage them to write a story about what happened, or draw a picture. If they want to make birthday cards and Christmas cards for the person who died, let them.