It is important to be honest and tell your children what has happened and to answer their questions truthfully. Some of the things that are said to children, with the best and kindest of intentions, can be misunderstood and lead to confusion and complication such as:
- “Gone to sleep” – can give children the fear that they too may not wake up, and they may be afraid to go to sleep, resulting in anxieties at bedtime.
- “We have lost your sister/ brother” – can leave a child searching in the hopes of finding them again, like looking for a lost toy.
- “The doctor has taken him/her away” – can leave children fearful of visiting a doctor again and may cause the child to feel abandoned or think he or she did something wrong and is no longer loved.
Avoid saying that the child died in hospital as this may create fear that they might die if they need to go into hospital.
Suggesting that a child has ‘gone to heaven’ or ‘to live with God or Jesus’ may be confusing for a young child, unless your family share a religious faith, which you all find comforting.
Children and young people grieve just as much as adults but they show it in different ways. They learn how to grieve by copying the responses of the adults around them, and rely on adults to provide them with what they need to support them in their grief.
Each child will have their own way of working through their grief and should be encouraged to express their individual feelings. Like you, they will have questions to which there may be no answer, but will need a truthful statement as far as their age and vocabulary allows. There is no age at which a child is too young to be told in the simplest terms what is happening. A young child may not understand, but needs information, often repeated, and love and support.
Children, like adults, can suffer a wide range of emotions, including sorrow, anger, disbelief, and even guilt (it is surprising to many parents that their older toddler or child may worry that their jealous feelings, or a fight over a toy, for example, caused the death).
Children have a limited ability to put feelings, thoughts and memories into words and tend to “act out” with behaviours rather than express themselves verbally. Showing your grief will encourage them to express theirs. Their behaviour is your guide as to how they are and this is as true for a very young child as it is for a teenager.
It is important that children are reassured that it wasn’t anybody’s fault that their sibling died. Siblings may regress in their behaviour, becoming clingy, reverting to thumb sucking or bedwetting, or complaining of headaches or stomach aches. They may not speak about their feelings and by holding back, and even attempting to be extra good and helpful, may cause adults to assume they are unaffected. This is never the case.
Try to include siblings in the events and ceremonies which follow the death, as excluding them is likely to leave them feeling anxious, bewildered and alone. Allowing them to see their sibling and say goodbye is usually helpful – their imagination is often much worse than reality
You may need help in deciding how to prepare your children to attend or participate in the funeral or memorial service. The Child Bereavement UK website has further information
and support around talking to children.
Or you can contact Winston’s Wish, a charity which offers bereavement support to children, on 08088 020 021
Ways to help children
- Talk to your children in a straightforward way, giving honest information in simple language.
- Encourage your children to talk and express their feelings, and be honest about your own.
- Listen to your children; it is important for them to be able to talk about their thoughts and feelings without being dismissed
- Try to welcome their questions. Some questions may be painfully direct, but if the child has asked, it’s because they want to know
- Repeated questions need patient listening and repeated answers (which should remain consistent). Children may ask the same question repeatedly to several adults to check out a puzzling or distressing situation.
- It is alright to say “I don’t know”, if that is true.
- Share tearful times. Children will not be frightened by your tears if they know why you cry. It gives them permission to do the same.
- Be patient with children when they are angry. It is normal to be angry, and acknowledging the child’s feelings rather than telling them ‘not to be angry’ is best.
- Share memories of their brother or sister by looking at photographs and remembering events. You might like to put together a memory book or box.
- Maintain usual routines as much as possible: bed times, story times, playtimes, walks and meals. If you cannot manage this at first, enlist a relative or other loved and trusted adult to keep the children’s routine as consistent as possible.
- Keep the children at home, rather than sending them away to relatives or friends, if at all possible.
- Talk to their playgroup/nursery leader or school teacher and explain what has happened. Discuss with them how they will handle the news, and support your child(ren) in the school or nursery.
It is important for your child(ren) to express their feelings, and, if very young, they may do this through their toys and through play. If your child’s reactions worry or puzzle you, do consider talking things over with a Helpline Adviser at The Lullaby Trust or having a chat with your GP, health visitor or child’s teacher.