In my life before becoming an author I worked around death and dying a lot. I worked in a hospice and I have conducted over 200 funerals and assisted at around 1000. I also coordinated a survivors-of-suicide group and a cancer support group for a number of years.
Let’s be honest, losing someone we love hurts on so many levels and the journey of bereavement is an unpredictable time of swirling emotions and confusion.
There are two main types of experiences around death – the anticipated death and the sudden, unexpected death. Supporting children who are experiencing grief can be different to supporting adults and often adults — especially close family, community members and educators — can struggle to know how best to support children. While this is just one article on a very big issue, I hope it helps you to be aware of some of the things to be mindful of when children experience the death of someone they love a lot.
Sharing the news
The first step is obviously telling children the sad and difficult news. Parents (or a secondary attachment figure who is close to the children) are the best people to do this no matter how difficult it will be.
Have the children seated closely in front of you in the lounge room or somewhere similar – not the kitchen. Just dive in with something like – “I have some sad news to tell you”. Start with the ‘what’ – “Gramps is going to die soon” or “Gramps has died”. Please avoid using phrases like ‘passed over’, or “God has come and taken him to heaven” or “he has gone to sleep” as these terms can be confusing, especially for young children. I once knew a little lad who refused to go to bed in case he fell asleep because Granny had gone to sleep and ended up in a box in the ground!
If you are unsure of how to explain death to children under 10, feel free to access my audio, The Magic Yellow Cloud (I am gifting free access to this audio for anyone reading this blog). This track can help you to have the words or possible explanations ready for younger children, especially those who have not yet lost anyone they know, or even a pet. This video blog may also help with this step.
Once you have broken the news of the death, you need to explore what happens next. Those who love Gramps will feel pain in their hearts and feel really sad and sometimes angry that he has died.
Everyone who loses someone they love when they die will find it really hard to be happy for a time. Please reassure your children this is normal and not bad or a sign of being weak. It does eventually get easier.
You can explain: “Soon we will have a funeral where we will reverently cremate or bury his body and have a ceremony to celebrate his life”. Some children immediately reach for comfort, some just start crying and some run away into their bedrooms to process the huge news — they will be more ready for comfort later. Some ask why? It’s OK to say in an anticipated death situation that their loved one’s body has an illness that will make the body stop working. In sudden death, it can help by saying that something happened that stopped the body working. Keeping it as simple as possible can be helpful at this time. Often later children can be ready to understand more, however in the initial moments it is a huge thing to comprehend and too much depth can swamp them even more. Offer the forms of comfort that you know your child normally responds to the most. Consider buying a new small soft toy that is really awesome to hug.
I know from my few years working as a bereavement support person in the Albany hospice and from my experiences working in the funeral industry that knowing someone is going to die can actually make some things easier than a sudden death. The most obvious is that ‘unfinished business’ can be finished. This means that family and friends can have opportunities to express things to be said and sometimes these are not just words of love but opportunities to reconcile differences or to apologise for things that may have been hurtful in the past.
When it is a parent of young children whose death is going to come much earlier in life than anyone wants, it can give that parent an opportunity to leave significantly meaningful messages of love and connection.
Many parents now leave short digital messages of love for the milestones that their children will meet after they have gone. These include starting school, graduating from school, 21st birthdays, weddings, the birth of their first child just to name a few. Letters can be written before death that can also be powerful and incredibly helpful many years later.
Help children to know how they can be helpful to both the parent who is dying and the parent who will be surviving. If a family has a faith then praying together can be really comforting. For some individuals in their last weeks of life, they can find it painful to be hugged or touched. Let the children know that singing their favourite songs or lying beside them gently on the bed as they watch a favourite program or as the child reads a favourite picture book can bring comfort to both sides of the relationship. I have seen children as young as four and five help feed their dying parent quite capably and competently. I have also seen young children comfort grandparents with incredible compassion and kindness.
At the time of death, I have witnessed the comfort that comes from creating a very special environment around the dying parent. Hand-drawn pictures, lots of photographs of healthier and happier times, many candles or essential oil diffusers that also have built-in lights, and favourite music being played quietly can all create an ambience that can lessen the impact of the moment when a loved one stops breathing. If the breathing is particularly laboured and noisy it can be difficult for grown-ups to be there and it can be quite distressing for children.
If the children have prepared to make the room a beautiful place to spend those last moments on earth they can then feel they have contributed in some way to making things better for their mum or their dad or grandparent even if they are not there when they die.
Sometimes setting up a special place as a ‘meeting place’ in the far distant future can help some children manage the loss of a parent they love dearly. If you have a faith then you already have that place as a part of your world and for many that is heaven. For those without that, creating a sense of a future meeting place can be incredibly comforting for young children because it can give them some hope that you may meet again one day. You can choose a star in the night sky, or a magical place you can create together. Some families I’ve worked with have used a familiar beach as a place that they will feel the presence of the loved one they were about to lose.
Another thing that can help children who are going to lose a parent to create a stronger sense of connection after death is by gathering all the favourite photographs over their lifetime and creating a unique photo album or picture book. When it is in one book or album, it is so much easier to find quickly and to reminisce sometimes publicly and sometimes in private — rather than just searching through endless photos on phones or computers.
For some families the ‘imaginary mailbox’ has been really helpful. This is a large box that may have the deceased parent’s photos on the cover or just a special box that is wrapped in a favourite colour paper. Whenever a child wants to share something wonderful or exciting with the parent who has died they either draw a picture or write about it and put it in the imaginary mailbox. They pretend that that parent will somehow come to know about that moment that mattered. This can be really helpful for the first 12 to 18 months following the death and then after that its comfort potential seems to decrease. In the first part of the grieving journey, it can be really helpful if children feel that that parent is still a part of their life even though they live in the invisible world beyond here.
Knowing that we are going to lose someone we love can help us share all the things we would love to say — that sometimes in our busy life we forget to say. Anticipatory grief can happen well before an actual death.
Some of these suggestions mentioned also work really well when a death of a loved one is sudden and unexpected.
Sudden and unexpected death
As humans we are biologically wired to survive and someone else’s sudden death is a major threat to our sense of survival. It shocks every single part of our being and the grieving process can definitely be more challenging, especially for children. Because there is no forewarning and their safe grown-ups are also experiencing intense shock, it can really have our children floundering to manage a world that suddenly became unpredictable and unsafe.
Children grieve differently to teenagers and adults and it is important to use age-appropriate language around them and to be mindful not to speak too catastrophically when they are in earshot as that just adds another layer of distress to their already distressed little bodies and troubled minds. Keeping their world as close to normal in terms of routines can be helpful even though it can be really difficult in the first days and weeks after the death.
Some families have found it really beneficial to create a special area in their home that is dedicated to the deceased parent. A large happy photograph is obviously really important. A vase where they can put flowers can also be helpful to make this a special place, as can some form of candle — one that is really safe for children such as little electrical ones. Many young children come and talk to the photograph every day when they feel they miss that parent. Some bring special toys and put them on the table to show their affection and love for that parent or grown up that they love. Some bring home a painting from school or a certificate from an assembly and put it next to the photograph. It can help some children feel they haven’t lost everything — they have simply lost the physical presence of the grown-up they loved.
Many well-meaning adults unintentionally create more distress for children when they ask them how they are and assume that they should be more distressed than they are.
Children grieve in small chunks because that’s all they can handle and even when they are playing happily or sitting quietly — they can still be processing that loss just not in the way grown-ups do. Avoiding platitudes for the grieving grown-ups (such as “At least they are in heaven now with God”) can also be incredibly helpful.
For some bereaved children be aware of separation anxiety returning – and the symptoms can return from bedwetting, being clingy, being easily upset. This just means that the distress has created a temporary regression in the child that will gradually dissipate as the grieving process unfolds or as they see their safe grown-up coping better.
For some children. suppressed emotion can come out as inappropriate behaviour, such as tantrums, fighting, ‘freezing’ or ‘numbing’ or even silliness. In many ways it’s like the child’s body is trying to release the tension that the distress is overloading them with. Every child is different in how they manage the distress of death or significant loss.
There is no question that irrational fears can frighten young children – who else may die or leave? And they may ask you are you going to die too? It is quite normal for them to feel fearful however that should become less of a problem as time goes by.
Most children recover in time without needing professional help however they do need to have safe grown-ups who can hold a safe place for them while they grieve. Some children who do not have safe grown-ups and who do not get the reassurance children need can develop an oversensitive stress response system and even long-term anxiety issues. If this happens please seek some professional help preferably with a psychologist or family therapist or an organisation that specialises in working with children who have experienced trauma.
The role of caring educators
There have been many times when I have been asked by early childhood educators and teachers for suggestions on how they can best support children who have experienced sudden death. Some of the above suggestions can be helpful. However having a really large comfort bear that is really soft and always available for a hug is one of the most deceptively powerful ways that grieving children can seek help. If a child reaches for this bear it is a clear indicator that they need comfort and support. I am still concerned that many children in our primary and secondary schools do most of their grieving during class in the school toilet because they’re not sure where they can go when their big ugly feelings swamp them. We need to create a safe, respectful place where they can step back from the busyness and stress of school, into a quiet place where they can do a little more grieving. For schools of faith the chapel is perfect for this however I have heard that some students are not allowed to access the chapel without a grown-up present.
Having one educator in an early childhood setting who is really comfortable around death and loss is profoundly helpful in helping children or grown-ups who experience a death of a loved one. They intuitively know how to hold a safe space sometimes without words and they just give comfort, sometimes with a smile.
Educators can help children use art as both a form of therapy and as a form of quiet solace. They can make special things that are bright and cheerful for their grown-ups who are sad. So often all they need is a safe lap to be able to crawl into without needing to talk at all. This is especially true of our little boys who often find words around big feelings really hard to find. Just because they cannot articulate their feelings, does not mean they are feeling them very deeply — boys feel emotions just as deeply as our girls.
Giving children a safe voice for their grief and plenty of opportunities to participate in the death and the funeral are key to helping children to process grief. Really listening and validating whatever big feeling they are feeling is deceptively powerful and therapeutic. Helping to keep the lost loved one part of the family without needing to speak of them in hushed tones is also important. Keep celebrating their birthdays and keep their photos in full view of the world. Some families set a place at the table for their lost love one on special occasions.
Change, loss and death will happen to everyone at some point in life. I believe we need to prepare our children for these things when they are young and I do recommend that families consider getting a guinea pig so that they can experience that first death early in life before the growth of the emotional brain, which makes everything that hurts even harder. This is a list of some picture books that can be helpful to both educate and prepare children for death or to help them if a death has occurred: https://www.maggiedent.com/blog/books-death-loss-and-illness-children/
“The tide recedes but leaves behind bright seashells in the sand. The sun goes down but gentle warmth still lingers on the land. The music stops and yet it echoes on in sweet refrains. For every joy that passes something beautiful remains.” —— Anon.