As a parent, our natural response to talking about death or having to deal with someone close to us who has passed away is to protect our children in the best possible way. Many parents are anxious when the subject of death comes up with their children, not knowing what the right answer is, making sure we are honest but not giving them too much information that may upset or even frighten them. We all know that death is part of life, and for some children, they experience bereavement when they are young and may not fully understand death; and for others, it comes later in life. Either way, it can be a very difficult time for everyone involved. Having some idea of ‘what to do’ to help, support and encourage our children to go through the experience in the most comfortable way possible can be reassuring.
A child’s own understanding of a loved one passing away often depends on their age and stage of development. Every parent knows their own child best, so we can sometimes be guided by how a child feels through their behaviour. Small children can feel extreme sadness the way an adult would; the difference is that a child may not have the words to express these feelings and thoughts like we do.
Babies – 2 years
It is hard to imagine a small child having to experience bereavement at such a young age; however, for many, it is a reality. During the first couple years of their lives, babies and small children don’t necessarily understand what death is, but they sense physical change, loss of familiarity and separation, particularly if it’s a person they spent a lot of time with. It’s very typical for a small child to be clingy and upset with those around them if they are feeling sad or overwhelmed. If this is the case, it’s important to know that they are relying on our comfort, body language, soft tones and gentle touch as reassurance. They are in tune with adults so can easily pick up on our own emotions, our reactions and our sadness.
2 to 5 years
As children get older, some of us may feel that they have a better understanding of death, and their openness to ask direct questions shows their need to make sense of the situation. We may see them moving on quite quickly, as some children may have the expectation that the deceased person will return. Because of this, pre-school aged children can find it difficult to comprehend the permanency of their loved one no longer being there, whilst also trying to understand what it’s all about. It’s important to be aware that our children can be up and down in their behaviours as they try and process this big change in their life. During these years, children become more self-aware of themselves and those around them; they can be very tuned in to how the adults in their life are behaving. As we, too, are grieving after a bereavement, we can look to a number of ways that we can try to comfort our children through these difficult times.
How you can I support my child?
1. Consistent routines are always an important part of parenting. When a child experiences such loss and extreme change that is out of our immediate control, the emphasis on routines are as important as ever. Try to keep morning, daytime and night time routines the same as best you can, to provide consistency, predictability and security for the child.
2. Barnardo’s suggest that “if there has been the death of a parent, particularly a mother, place an item of clothing belonging to the deceased in the child’s cot or bed. Its familiar smell will be comforting. Also, talk to the child about what has happened. Smaller children will not understand your words but will pick up on your feelings through their sense of sound and touch.”
3. When a child experiences a major change or upheaval in their little life, we need to be prepared for them to possibly regress in behaviour, whether this is in their eating, sleeping, toileting or general form. Be patient, as they are just making sense and adapting to the new ways. Follow their lead and encourage positive change when you see the time is right.
4. Be prepared for your child to be that extra bit clingy and reluctant to leave your side. In their own little minds they can often wonder ‘will you too return?’ A lot of reassurance is needed if this is your experience; remember, the more consistent we are on a day-to-day basis, the more secure a child will feel. They are relying on us to provide that comfort, reassurance and consistency to help with their own feelings of upset.
5. Barnardo’s also share some additional advice: “Give children the time they need to understand. You may need to repeat the story of what has happened over and over. Be clear and honest. It is OK for your child to see that you are grieving, and be assured that this is normal. Avoid trying to ‘cheer the child up’ if they are distressed and sad. Instead, offer comfort and understanding: "I know you are very sad and upset."
6. If your child is in crèche, be sure to keep in touch with your their keyworker and explain the family bereavement. The carers may play a big part in supporting your child by allowing them talk about their emotions and sadness during the day.
7. A child who is five or older usually has more of an understanding that the person who has passed away is not returning, so to help them with this, use story themed books. This is a great medium to talk about understanding when someone passes away. Recommended reading includes Waterbugs and Dragonflies: explaining death to Young Children by Doris Stickney, and Muddles, Puddles and Sunshine: Your activity book to help when someone has died by Winston’s Wish.
8. Creating a memory box of all the things that reminded the child of the person can be a lovely touch, including items of favourite places they went together, photos or even symbols that reminded your child of their happy memories together.
No matter how difficult this period of time is for everyone; letting your child know you are there for them creates a great comfort and support.
Aoife Lee, Parent Coach for Giraffe Childcare