Talking to children about death

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This article is shared directly from the Marie Curie website exploring the theme ‘talking to children about death’. We hope you find it helpful.

Talking to children about death

The death of someone close is one of the hardest things anyone has to face. It can be especially difficult to help a child manage their grief while you’re dealing with your own. Talking to a child about death can help them feel better supported and more secure. They may have fears or questions that they’re worried about bringing up.

Talking about death

Talking to a child about someone close to them dying can be difficult.
You may worry that you will frighten them or say the wrong thing. But it’s important to be open and to answer any questions they have as honestly as you can.
What children imagine can be far worse than the reality.
Here are some tips that may help you talk about death:
  • When they ask a question, you could start by asking, ‘What do you think?’ Then you can build your answer on their understanding of what’s happened.
  • Try to avoid telling your child not to worry or be sad. It’s normal that they should get attached to people. And, like you, they might find it hard to control their feelings.
  • Don’t try to hide your pain, either – it’s alright to cry in front of your child. It can help to let them know why you’re crying. If your child seems worried that you’re crying, it might help to explain that crying is like medicine – it’s a way to relieve your body of the pressure and make you feel better.Be sure to give your 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 an established routine, if you can.
Child Bereavement UK   has a useful information sheet for explaining death to children.
Here are some other things that may help:

Be honest

Children need to know what happened to the person that died. Try to explain in clear, simple language that’s right for their age and level of experience. You might also try giving them information in small amounts at a time, especially to young children, as this can help them understand. Once you’ve explained that someone has died, the details can follow.

Use plain language

It is clearer to say someone has died than to use euphemisms. Avoid explanations such as the person has ‘gone to sleep’ or ‘gone away’. They may make your child frightened to go to sleep or worry when you leave the house you might not come back.

Encourage questions

Be prepared for a child to be curious and to ask the same questions again and again. This can be distressing but remember it’s a part of their need for reassurance and helps them process the information.

Reassure them

It’s common for children to feel that the person has died as a result of something they may have said or done. Explain simply how and why they’re not to blame.

Ask them to tell their story

To protect children, adults sometimes try to avoid talking about the person who’s died. But the child may want to talk about the person. They need to tell their story and it might help them remember the person who’s died. They had a relationship with the person who died and it was important to them.

Listening to them can help you understand what they know about what happened. You can also correct anything that’s not quite accurate. Listening will also help you understand how the child’s feeling. Avoid telling them what you think they should feel.

People who can help

When you’re helping a bereaved child, take things one day at a time. If at any time you feel unable to cope remember you don’t have to go it alone. Friends, family, healthcare professionals, teachers at your child’s school and others can all help. There are specialist child bereavement services that you can use and there is also a reading list on the Marie Curie website which includes books about and for grieving children.

You may also be able to get support through a local hospice, including Marie Curie Hospices. Some have counsellors for children and young people. This is usually only available if the person who died was known to the hospice, but it can vary. To find out more, contact your local hospice.

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