Supporting young children through bereavement
It is important to acknowledge the loss to the child without trying to avoid the subject – which can be difficult if you are also grieving. Words like ‘death’ and ‘died’ can feel unsafe for us, as adults, due to the finality of their meaning. However, children need specific, clear and direct wording which will help to build their understanding.
As adults, it is natural that we would want to prevent children from being upset and we may feel that using less finite words will help them. But phrases such as ‘passed away’, ‘went to sleep’. ‘in the stars’ or ‘no longer with us’ can cause many conflicting thoughts, misunderstandings and concerns for children. So it is better to say something like: “The Queen has died. Everything that lives, dies one day. Death means that it is the end of living”. Avoid adding too much information as they may become confused and may not want to have that much information about what’s happened. Share information in small doses.
It is important for children and adults to feel safe in talking about how they are feeling. Conversations around the death of someone can take place in ways which may help us to feel safer. Depending upon the age and understanding of the child, we could ask the child to draw a picture, make a card or write a letter to the person who has died, or even go for a walk together. We can then use this time to ask them about what they know and how they are feeling. This is when we can use our emotion words to model to our children that is it ok and normal to be feeling this way.
Statements such as, “I haven’t met the Queen, but I feel sad,” are a good way to open the conversation with children. You might also say “it’s normal to feel sad when someone dies”. This would be a good opportunity then for children to explore their emotions and how they are feeling. We can help them by providing language and a safe environment for them to do this. While it might seem that you are prolonging the agony, you are in fact allowing those feelings to be aired and acknowledged in a safe way with you. This is called Emotion Coaching.