The death of someone we love, at any stage in our lives, is difficult to cope with. No matter how expected and the preparation that could be done while the person is alive, the moment of death will still feel sudden and a shock.
As an adult, dealing with personal feelings about death is difficult. If you have children who are experiencing grief with you, it can be almost unbearable. Marking the moment with memorial jewellery can help. However, we recognise this is merely one small gesture at a time when life is challenging. To offer some help, a supporting hand on your shoulder, we have provided the following guide to helping children cope with death.
How Do Children React to Death?
It is important to first state that children respond differently to death than adults. Adults should beware before imposing an adult framework on the actions and reactions of the child.
Children, when told of the death of a loved one, may not react. You will be concerned that they may not have understood the news. Death is indeed a difficult concept for a child, who has yet to conceive of personal mortality. However, it is likely that the message has been received and they just need time to work out what this means. Do not press this, inform the child that you know it is a lot of news to receive and that you will be here if they have questions or would like to talk about it. Give the child room to come to you when the news has settled a little. They will need you at some point.
The reaction at the news of a death will vary depending on the age of the child and the child’s history. There are all sorts of factors that will impact on the reaction of children, from their personality to whether they have experienced death before. Trust your knowledge of your child and respond as your instincts suggest.
Despite the individuality of the child, age is a determinant on how they will conceive of death.
Under six months: the child will have no concept of death but will react to the grief of parents. They may experience feeding and sleeping difficulties.
Six months to two years: The child still does not understand death. Again, the child will respond to the upset of caregivers and will have a sense that something is wrong. At two, the child will notice someone missing. You could see that they cry a lot and have tummy aches. They may demonstrate regressive behaviours and maybe wet the bed again or request a dummy.
Two to five years: Children will talk about death, but they will not realise that it cannot be undone. They may ask questions that show difficulty in believing that the person will not come back. It is possible that they may feel to blame for the death. They will ask many questions, and they will need reassurance that you are not just going to die soon too.
Five to ten years: Children will now know that death is permanent. They will understand that it happens to everyone and will likely worry about the death of others too. They will probably ask many questions about what happens to people when they die. Be aware that children of this age will want to be a comfort to others and so may mask personal feelings, fearing it may distress loved ones more if they are upset.
A child will likely swing between moods quickly. They will grieve and then suddenly return to normal life. They may cry one minute and then become absorbed in a game in the next. This is completely normal, and psychologists call it puddle-jumping. If the puddle is the child’s grief, it is easy to imagine the child jumping in and out of these moments.
Children, much more than adults, will entertain magical thinking. This thinking will lead them to believe that they can control the situation with their thoughts. They may argue that they thought or said something that caused this event to happen. It might be that they believe they can do something that will bring the person back.
How to Explain Death to a Child
Talking to a child about someone dying is one of the most challenging tasks you will likely face. It may be tempting to ask a professional or someone who is less emotional to talk to the child. The best person to tell the child is the person who would typically give them care or the person they would run to if they hurt themselves.
You may be worried about upsetting or frightening them. However, of absolute importance is that you are honest and transparent in what you say. You will need to use simple language, use words like “died” and “dead” and avoiding words like “passed” and “lost” and “asleep” that are too abstract for a child to process.
Be aware: your child’s imagination is powerful and can be worse than the reality. Therefore, being unambiguous, without euphemism, is going to be the most useful approach. It would be best if you also told the child straight away, as you don’t want them to overhear.
If you need to assess the child’s level of understanding of what you have told them you should wait for them to ask a question. Before answering the question respond with “What do you think?” This question will allow the child to demonstrate how much they understand what has happened.
It would be best if you then described to the child what to expect next. There may be lots of visitors, for instance. There may be people who want to ask lots of questions. There will also be a funeral and the wake after the funeral. It is best to describe this to the child, so they recognise what is happening as it happens.
In all of this, you will be upset too. You are in pain. It is fine to show this to the child, as you are role-modelling appropriate emotional behaviour. If you are crying, try to explain it is because you are sad because the person has died. You could explain to them that crying is our body’s way of releasing the feelings and can act as a medicine. Cuddling them will make all the difference.
How Do You Continue to Help A Child Deal with Death?
By showing your feelings, you will encourage the child to show their feelings. Continue to reassure them that they are loved with cuddles and with words.
As time goes on it is essential to return to routines as quickly as possible. Maintain bedtimes and mealtimes as much as possible, for instance. Your child’s school will be able to help with support during bereavement and sending them to school might be the best idea. There will be a chance for the child to forget for a while and this will give you the space to do the many activities that come with the death of a loved one.
Be prepared to listen. The child may want to tell a story of the person they remember. Allow them to speak about the person and talk back a little. Try not to overload the child with too many details, listen and add details where it seems appropriate.
It is a good idea to avoid telling them how they should feel. It is probably too complex to understand how you feel, so there is no set way a young person should feel either. You may say “it is ok to be sad” or the opposite “don’t feel sad” – neither may hit upon what the child is thinking and feeling at that moment. So, listening to what the child says is important, and answer questions where you can.
A child will want to help, as any human does in this situation. Give the child a small role that they can do to support you. This could be something small and achievable, but you could make it clear that it would make all the difference at this time.
Signs That Your Child May Need Professional Help
In the first few weeks, it is normal for there to be disruption and upset. Sometimes it is important to sit back and wait to see if the emotional disruption will pass. After a time there may be a pattern of behaviour that becomes worrying, and you may need to seek professional support, either from the school or from your GP. Some signs to look out for include:
- The child begins to ask for help with things they were previously able to do for themselves; regression is a common sign of insecurity and shows an underlying fear that life is not what they imagined it to be.
- They begin to cry a lot: as with adults, uncontrolled emotional outbursts should be a sign of concern. If the child is crying a lot without good reason, then this may be a sign that they need to speak to someone.
- Their performance begins to decline in school and doesn’t pick up again: remember that it is expected that a child may struggle for a little while. Therefore, an immediate reaction at school should be expected but if the child continues to struggle or show indifference, then there may need to be intervention.
- They seem to be pre-occupied, worried, anxious and nervous: it is likely that the child will become clingy, or the opposite, they may become distant. Both may be a sign that they fear the loss of someone else in life and do not want to experience the same level of hurt. Oddly, a child who is trying too hard to be good may also need support. A child is more likely to succumb to magical thinking, believing if they do everything right then the person will come back. It could be that this overly good behaviour needs help as much as any signs of aggression, which is an expression of the loss of control and helplessness in the face of loss.
- Sleep problems may develop, and bedwetting is an outward sign of emotional distress
Children may revisit this grief at significant milestones in life. They may suddenly become sad as they start a new school, or they win a race on sports day. This is to be expected, as they may feel guilt at moving on or may feel angry that this person is not there to be with them. It is a good idea to continue to speak about feelings even beyond a time when you think the grief has passed.
This guide cannot replace the support you may need from health and social care experts. A qualified professional will be able to offer advice that is personal to your situation and your little person. You are also the best person to know how to support your child. We just know this is a difficult time and we hope the points we have addressed will offer some support and small moments of relief.