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.
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:
Source: Winston's Wish
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.
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