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How do you talk to a child about death?

Posted on: 01 March 2017 by 50connect editorial

Children and teenagers don't always express grief in the way you expect, here we look at some useful ways of encouraging them to acknowledge and understand their feelings of loss.

Talking to children about death

Talking about death is difficult - even more so when you are talking to children - and although you want to protect their feelings talking in vague terms that someone has ‘gone to sleep’ or ‘gone away’’ can result in them becoming confused and upset. Instead, it’s important to use clear, simple language – words like ‘dead’ and ‘dying’ may sound harsh to adults, but to children, they may make the most sense.

For many children, their first experience of death is likely to be when a pet dies. This provides a good opportunity to have an honest and open conversation about dying which can help to give them a better understanding what it means when a person close to them dies.

Rachel Morris, a Children and Young Person’s Counsellor at the Marie Curie Hospice, Liverpool, works with families before and after someone dies to help children come to terms with what’s happening. Here she explains how her role pre-bereavement and how children can benefit.   

“Some families will want some input around speaking to the children about death and dying,” she explains. “With the pre-bereavement work I do – that’s before someone’s died – it’s talking with the children and preparing them for the death of a loved one.

Talking about death

  • Try to avoid telling your child not to worry or be sad. It’s healthy to get attached to people. And, like you, your child might find it hard to control their feelings.
  • Don’t try to hide your pain, either – it’s alright to cry in front of a child. It can help to let them know why you're crying.
  • Be sure to give the child plenty of reassurance. Let them know they’re loved and that there are still people who will be there for them. A cuddle can make a big difference and make them feel cared for. It’s also a good idea to stick to a routine if you can. This can help the child feel more secure.

The importance of talking and listening

“I’ve met people as adults who had unresolved grief from childhood where they’d been told someone who’d died had just left or gone away,” explains Rachel. “There’s then that searching or not knowing. It’s key to address what’s going on at the time.

“I think in grief and bereavement, children are often the forgotten mourners. It’s almost like people think they don’t understand when actually they do. It could be that a family member’s had that experience of grief and wants to protect the child, and that’s totally understandable. My job is to help them through it together.”

Expressing feelings with and without words

Allowing a child to explore their loss through drawing or painting can be a helpful way of helping them understand loss. This kind of activity can be done pre-bereavement or after, but it is important to do this at a pace that the child is comfortable with.

“A lot of the time, children will want to draw and explore how they’re feeling that way. I’m working with one little girl who’s mum died at the hospice. In the week between the death and her mother’s funeral, we did some artwork which was massive for her. She got the chance to talk about how she felt.

“I’m now helping her to understand that it’s ok to talk about her feelings and to explore those feelings with her family.

Facing up to death

It is important to realise that talking to children about the death of someone they love will be painful – and not to shy away from that.

“Having that talk with your child will be sad, it will be upsetting, but your child will seek comfort from knowing that you’re upset too," explains Rachel. "It often feels like a weight’s been lifted for them after having that conversation.”

Getting on with living

As painful as bereavement is, life has to go on. Think about whether your children are ready to return to school and what steps might be needed to support him/her. Emotionally, the grieving and support process will also have taken a lot out of you, so consider asking your employer if there are counselling services.

Practical tips

You can help your children by giving honest answers and remembering these pointers.

  • Address the subject even if it is difficult and painful.
  • Children will know if you try to hide the truth from them.
  • Children understand words very literally, and you may need check they haven’t misunderstood.
  • Involve children in family activities including attending funerals if they want to. It’s an opportunity for them to say goodbye
  • Memory boxes can be a good way of helping children remember loved ones who have died
  • There are a number of charities dedicated to supporting families and children through bereavement, such as The Child Bereavement Charity, Grief Encounter, Winston's Wish.

Marie Curie cares for people living with terminal illness, and their families, offering expert guidance and support to help them get the most from the time they have left. This March, support the Great Daffodil Appeal to help Marie Curie Nurses be there for more people who need them.

Donate and wear your daffodil

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