When faced with grief, it can be hard to know what to say or do. Having a conversation about death can be difficult for anyone, but especially so with a child. Here is our guide to talking to children about bereavement.
Adults can understand what has happened, whereas children are likely to struggle. That is why it is important to talk to children of all ages about bereavement and to let a child know when someone important in their lives has died.
Use plain language
Adults often use euphemisms and metaphors when explaining things to children but, when it comes to talking about death, it is important that you speak to them clearly and honestly. Using euphemisms leaves a lot to interpretation.
It is okay to use the word “died”. Saying that someone “has gone to sleep”, “has passed away”, “has gone away”, or “isn’t with us anymore” can cause confusion in a child.
Children may misinterpret that to mean the person has simply left or gone to sleep and might wake up or come back. On the other hand, it may make them feel scared about going to sleep or someone leaving the house out of fear they will not come back.
It is important that you check their understanding by simply asking them if they understand and asking whether they have any questions.
Children are naturally curious and inquisitive. They are likely to ask questions, sometimes even the same ones over and over. This can be distressing for you, but answering their questions is a vital part of helping them to understand and come to terms with death.
Understand that children will deal with death differently
Different children will grieve and process death in different ways, and this is normal. While one child might go quiet or cry, another might have a lot of questions, whilst others may just want to go and play.
Just like with adults, there is no right or wrong way to react or grieve. Everyone processes information in their own way and in their own time.
It is important that, no matter what, it is okay for them to feel sad or mad, or even to laugh or cry, and to let them deal with death in their own way.
It is common for a child to feel that a person might have died because of something that they have said or done. If this happens, reassure them that is not the case, by explaining to them how and why they are not to blame.
Continue to talk about the person who has died
You should continue to talk about someone after they died, and not avoid bringing them up in front of your children.
Talking about happier times and fond memories you have of them will reassure them that it is okay to still talk about that person and will help to make them feel comfortable talking about them, should they want to.
It is normal to find conversations about death difficult, but if you are struggling to help a bereaved child or have any concerns, there is support available. Marie Curie has curated a list of books for and about grieving children which can help a child to understand death and realise they are not alone. Child Bereavement UK supports children and young people who are facing bereavement. For confidential support, information, and guidance, speak to a Child Bereavement UK professional by calling their helpline on 0800 0288 840.