I hope this guide will help you help children cope with death. First, before I go further, it is essential to acknowledge that dealing with your feelings is challenging, without the addition of caring for young people. Therefore, before you can help others, you need to take care of your needs too.
Talking to children about death
You may want to avoid frightening children. It is tempting to use language that lessens the blow. However, children will not understand phrases like “passed on” and they may be more frightened by the idea of the “final sleep”. So, when you are explaining, you should use straightforward words such as “dead” or “died”.
Choose the person who is best at comforting the child to tell them. This is the person they run to when they are hurt.
When you first tell a child about death, they may not react. It is hard to understand. They will not understand the permanence of the news. Therefore, do not worry if they seem to just shrug off the news and move on with life. Give them a chance to work out what it means and be there to answer questions.
Children more than adults enter the mode of magical thinking. They may start to bargain with you. They might suggest that if they are good from now on, then the person will come back. Listen to them but reassure them that there is no way they caused or can control this situation.
Long term reactions
Grief is an individual experience. However, there are generalised reactions in children that are accepted as usual.
0 – 6 months the child does not understand what has happened but will be reacting to the upset of the parents. Therefore, they may be more difficult to calm and settle to sleep.
Six months to 2 years the child still might not understand the permanence of the loss, but they are aware that adults are upset, and someone is missing. Therefore, they may be more upset than usual and may demonstrate regressive behaviours.
Five years onwards the child will become increasingly aware of what it means to have died. Therefore, the upset will come and go, depending on when they remember. Keep an eye on them and be prepared to answer the questions they will have. They will also want to talk to you about the person who has died. It is essential to have these conversations and allow them to tell the stories they remember.
Children may regress in development. They may request to sleep in your bed or require you carry them or ask for a dummy or blanket that has been put away. This behaviour should pass with time.
Twelve years onwards the child will be processing the death as you are. They will appreciate the permanence, and theymay start to worry about you and your mortality. They may fall behind at school and be more reticent to leave your company.
How to help
First, you need to be prepared to answer questions, honestly and openly.
Describe the funeral and the likely visits from visitors. Explain that there may be discussions about houses and property, and all this is part of the time after a death.
Second, permit the child to be sad. If they are crying, try to avoid telling them “not to be sad” or to smile. Tell them you feel sad too, and you hope it will pass soon. Equally, don’t expect the child to be unhappy all the time. They will be easily distracted and will still be able to absorb themselves in games and activities.
Then, maintain routines. You will be tempted to treat them differently and wrap them in cotton wool. However, children feel safe when there are rules and boundaries. The last thing you want is for the child to feel that they have lost that sense of security. Therefore, maintain bedtimes, send them to school and ask about homework. It will offer the structure they need.
Finally, if upset or regressive behaviours continue for too long, then it is time to seek the support of the professional. You should be able to get help from your GP or through school.