Parenting | Talking to young children about death
We want to protect our children from hurt and trauma in life but death is as much a part of life as living is. In order to prepare children for life we must prepare and support them to understand and feel comfortable with death. This week, we offer ’10 ways’ to approach the subject of death and ways to support your child when they experience loss:
- Dealing with the loss of a pet, such as a goldfish, can be a way to introduce coping mechanisms. Have a light-hearted ceremony of some kind to remember the happy smiles the goldfish brought to the family. Children will handle this in many different ways: some will be fascinated with the science attached to it while others could be in tears for a week.
- In the case of a family bereavement, remember that the child has also experienced a loss. They may realise, for the first time, that we do not have everything in our lives forever. They will need support to understand how they are feeling. They may have a very great sense of sadness and loneliness over the loss and it may be the first time they have had this feeling. It is important to reassure them that this is normal and that it will pass.
- It is important to nurture them and give them comfort and solace. They will have questions for a long time and this is natural. We all have questions when someone dies. With your support children can cope with death and understand what has happened
- It is really important to allow children to experience a family bereavement. They should be included in what is happening to the family. If you try to totally shield your child from the loss they will sense that something has happened and be left with a very worried, empty, anxious feeling. Hiding the truth or excluding your child can cause a break in trust between you and your child.
- Allow your child to see that you are upset too. Children will be more confused if you tell them that you are okay when they know that you are not. Remember, children observe everything. Tell them that you feel sad about what has happened. Reassure them that it is okay for everyone to be really sad and that in time things will change again.
- Allow your child see the person who has died if they were close to them. Arrange a time when it is quiet for them to come and view the body. This will help your child to understand the permanent nature of death. While they might be initially afraid of the stillness of the body, they will remember that they loved this person dearly. Reassure your child that they are not really there any longer so they won’t be lonely, scared and lost in the box, as some children imagine they are. Telling children that someone has gone to sleep or gone to the sky is almost impossible for a child to understand. You can talk with your child about the spirit of the person if you wish and if this is something you believe but you must be careful that they are able to understand the concept.
- The funeral can really support your child to say goodbye just like it allows others to say goodbye. You may also need to do more than this with your child depending on whom it is that died. You can then have a special day each year with them where they decide how best they want to celebrate this person’s memory.
- Encourage your child to talk openly about the person who has died. It may take at least six months to recover from the initial shock and up to three years to accept that life is now different but that life will, and does, go on. If you feel after six months that your child is not coping very well with the death then it may be time to seek professional support such as Rainbows Ireland. They offer free bereavement support for children and young people throughout Ireland.
- It can be helpful to create a special book, with pictures and memories of your departed loved, to help your children to remember them.
- It is really important that you as a parent seek support if you need to. You won’t be able to support your child if you neglect your own needs. It is very hard to cope with grief so don’t be shy about asking for help.
This article is part of our weekly ’10 Ways to’ series of parenting tips, and is by One Family’s Director of Children and Parenting Services, Geraldine Kelly.
For support and advice on these or any related topics, call askonefamily on lo-call 1890 66 22 12 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.