After my husband suddenly died following a heart attack, the first thing I had to do was tell my children, they were nine and five at the time. But learning how to talk to my children about death didn’t end here. Talking to children about bereavement is an ongoing process that I’m still working through. However, through this experience, as well as through becoming one of the UK’s first bereavement coaches, I’ve learnt so much about how to help children understand bereavement. So, if you’re wondering how to talk to children about death, here’s some of my best advice.
Coming from a midwifery and nursing background, I know that when giving people bad news you’re supposed to be factual. Don’t fluff things up and use terms like ‘passed away’ or ‘gone to sleep’. However, when it came to telling my own children their dad had died I instinctively wanted to protect them and soften the news. Although in reality I knew that there was no way of doing this.
Nothing prepares you for this moment. You’re in a state of shock yourself, yet you’re trying to make sense of it so you can explain it to your children. I sat them both down and I said I had some sad news. I explained that while daddy was out on a bike ride his heart had stopped working and he’d died. Then, I told them that paramedics and doctors had tried to get his heart working again but they couldn’t help daddy, as the damage to his heart was too bad.
Using the words ‘dead’ and ‘died’ can feel harsh and uncomfortable. But using these words helps children to understand. Using terms like ‘gone to sleep’ and ‘passed away’ can cause anxiety, confusion and misguided hope that their loved one will wake up.
When it came to telling my children, I thought about telling them their dad was poorly in hospital initially. I felt like I needed more time to think about what to say and to prepare.
But the policeman who had just given me the news, advised me to tell them straight away. He explained to me that the children would know something wasn’t right and that it was better to be honest. This was some of the best advice I’d had, as in that moment I was incapable of making decisions. So, I was grateful that he’d told me exactly what was right to do.
As my girls were trying to process all of this information and the fact that their dad had died, they asked a lot of questions. And this often came at the end of the day when I was trying to get them to go to sleep and I was exhausted.
The best bit of advice I can give when wondering how to talk to children about death is to be honest in a way that is appropriate for their age. It can be very tempting to try and protect them from the harsh reality. But if you don’t give them the facts, they will go away and make up their own answers, which are often worse than the truth itself.
And if you don’t have the answers it’s okay to say “I don’t know.” Talk about it and if you can, go away and try and find out what they need to know.
When planning how to talk to children about death, don’t hide your own emotions. Hiding your emotions may cause your children to think that what they’re feeling isn’t normal. And in this case, they will follow suit and hide their emotions too.
It’s just as important to have an open conversation about grief as it is to be open about death. Let them see you crying, sad and upset. Explain to them how you feel, and tell them you deeply miss the person that’s died. It’s so important for your children to grieve in a healthy way, which they’re more likely to do if they understand that they’re not on their own in grief.
Learning how to talk to children about death unfortunately doesn’t end after one difficult conversation. It’s an ongoing process. Therefore, it’s really useful to learn about how children grieve in order to recognise the grief patterns of your child.
In amongst all the chaos, one of my most important roles now was to support my children through their grief. I had to learn how to comfort them, console them and understand all their different ways of showing their emotions.
Children grieve very differently to adults. Childhood bereavement charity, Winston’s Wish, refer to it as ‘puddle jumping.‘ As adults we tend to live in a constant state of grief with waves coming at us from all angles, however, children can be absolutely fine one minute playing with their friends, to becoming inconsolable the next.
As a parent you’re constantly trying to figure out if their behaviour is as a result of grief or because they’re just being children. This can feel impossible at times and for me, I didn’t want to be a parent that excused all their bad moments just because they were grieving.
There will be times when your children become inconsolable. And in these moments, it can be really comforting to have something tangible to hand that used to belong to the person that’s died. We made up a box which contained pictures, jewellery, cards, clothing, a lock of hair – anything that reminded us of Simon. Also, be prepared to have some songs ready to play that your loved one liked listening to or that you played at the funeral.
When your child becomes inconsolable, you won’t be able to say or do anything to help them. But you can take your them, hold them tight, put some music on and allow them to go through the memento box. This will make them feel safe, yet connected to their loved one.
You won’t always be able to rationalise your child’s behaviour, which in-turn can have a negative impact on you whilst trying to make sense of things yourself. This is a good way of giving you both time together whilst allowing them to process their feelings. And this will calm them down in a way nothing else will.
Losing a loved one, naturally triggers a fear of further loss. Your child will likely worry that they are going to lose you too! After all, the unimaginable has happened. So, it’s not inconceivable that they will now question their own and your mortality. When this question arises you’re going to want to promise them you will be around forever, and so will they. But sadly we can’t make these promises.
None of us know what lies ahead. However, we can say that we plan to live until we reach 100 so that we can meet our children’s children. This tells your child that will do everything within your power to live a long life, one that takes you way into the future. And this will reassure them without giving them false promises.
Some children may ask what will happen to them if you did die, and again you should be honest. Explain to them that they would be loved and looked after by Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles and friends. Children just need to know what’s going to happen, and as much as these conversations can be difficult they’re so important.
If a child becomes worried about their own death listen to their concerns, don’t tell them they’re being silly. Reassure them that it’s normal to have these fears. Discuss the life cycle with them so they understand that everything that lives dies. But state that humans can live for a long time and that we have to make the most of each moment. We can’t promise our children long lives, and if appropriate we can say that, but we can sit and discuss their fears as well as giving them giving honest answers.
Finally, learning how to talk to children about death isn’t just one-sided. If you’re not sure what is best for your child, it’s okay to ask them! Whether it’s if they want to see the body, attend the funeral or go to the place where their loved one died. Give them opportunities to make decisions.
Of course, two children may answer in different ways and want different things. However, just remember you’re their parent and you know them best. Trust your instincts – you will know what is appropriate to ask/offer your children.
If you or someone you know is currently dealing with any of the issues in this article, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me.
So, to recap, learning how to talk to children about death is about:
And as always, during this time, it can be really helpful to take all the support that’s offered. You should reach out to charities and bereavement services, and never be afraid to ask for advice and help.