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Talking to Children

Telling your child that their mum or dad has died is probably one of the most difficult things you will ever have to do. Particularly when you are dealing with your own grief at the same time. In the past, adults tried to shield children from death, but today most professionals will tell you that you need to talk as honestly as possible to children about what has happened.

Autumnal walk

Photo by Annie Lovett

If you tell a young child that their parent has ‘gone to sleep’, for example, they might be scared to go to sleep at night. Or if you say that their mummy or daddy was poorly, they might worry every time anyone else gets poorly that they too might die. If you tell them their mum or dad has gone up to the sky, they might be confused then about why their parent’s body is buried in the ground. Try to use straightforward language that’s appropriate for the child’s age. And be prepared to answer questions. Lots of them. As honestly as you can.

The Cheltenham-based child bereavement charity Winston’s Wish is an excellent resource for widowed parents. They have a really helpful and user-friendly website that will help to guide you through some of the most difficult conversations you’ll ever have with your children, and a phone line that you can turn to for advice (08452 03 04 05). Their tips for talking to children about death include things like:

  • Answer questions honestly and simply; and be willing to say ‘I don’t know’.
  • Give information a bit at a time if your children are younger. Pieces of the ‘jigsaw puzzle’ can be put together over time to make the complete picture.
  • Encourage children to ask questions and keep answering them - even if it’s for the 100th time.
  • Remember that ‘super parents’ don’t exist. Just do what you can, when you can. Be gentle on yourself.
  • There is more than one way to support your children. Choose the things that you feel most comfortable with.
  • Accept that some things just can’t be ‘made better’ in a short space of time.
  • Show children how you are feeling: it helps them to know that it’s OK to show their feelings too.
  • Try to find ways in which children can be involved (some examples might include making a memory box of special things to remind them of their parent or helping to plan the funeral service, if they are older).
  • Keep talking about the person who has died.

Source: Winston's Wish

How children might react

Winston’s Wish will tell you that children’s experience of death, and their reactions to it, may be different from yours as an adult. As they explain, initial reactions may range from great distress to apparent lack of concern:

“Younger children experience grief differently to adults. Adults could be said to wade with difficulty through rivers of grief, and may become stuck in the middle of a wide sea of grieving. For children, their grieving can seem more like leaping in and out of puddles. One minute, they may be sobbing, the next they are asking: ‘What’s for tea?’ It does not mean they care any the less about what has happened.”
- Source: Winston’s Wish

Although supporting a child who’s lost a parent can seem daunting, Winston’s Wish and other child bereavement charities like the Child Bereavement Network show that there are simple, straightforward and practical ways that can make a real difference. With the right support and information, children can begin to understand what has happened to their mum or dad – and they can slowly learn to live with their loss.

Useful Links

  • Winston’s Wish
    Talking about death, how age can affect a child’s understanding of death and dying and how children might behave.
  • Child Bereavement Network
    How parents and carers can help and books that can help children understand death.
  • Cruse Bereavement Care
    Many local branches of the bereavement charity Cruse offer individual or group support for bereaved children. Cruse also has a website specially dedicated to young people, www.rdf4u.org.uk.
    Cruse also has a dedicated freephone helpline for young people, open 9.30am-5pm on weekdays, on 0808 808 1677.
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