Experts share things parents should and shouldn't say when explaining death to children

By Susan Griffin & Millie Reeves

Although we’ve all experienced childhood, it can be all too easy to forget as adults just how much you feel during your formative years.

It’s why childhood grief can be problematic when parents and guardians presume a child isn’t old enough to be truly affected by a bereavement, or believe it’s best not to discuss the subject of death, especially in relation to a relative or friend who’s passed away.

However well-intended, denying a child the right to grieve and ask questions can have a negative impact, emotionally and physically, which is why it’s crucial to have open and honest conversations that are age-appropriate, and allow children the time and space to mourn.

“Losing a relative at a young age is devastating. Children can feel hopeless and despairing, and this can have a big impact on a child’s life,” says Amy Green, project manager at Cruse Bereavement Care, the leading national charity for bereaved people across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

We often underestimate the impact death has on a child (RubberBall/Getty)

“This grief is likely to carried into adulthood and reaching certain milestones, like adolescence, getting married or having a child can be painful reminders of their loss.

It’s why children should be encouraged to talk about their thoughts and feelings about the bereavement, and not keep them bottled up as this can be harmful in the long-term,” she says.

“Talking to friends and family about the death of a relative or friend can help keep their memory alive, and it’s important these conversations are encouraged when needed, and some people might also benefit from speaking to a professional about their grief.”

Here, Green provides a few essential tips on how to broach the subjects of bereavement and death with children.

Be frank and factual

“It is important that the cause of death, the funeral and burial process and what happens to the deceased person’s body are explained in a factual and age-appropriate manner to the bereaved child if they are asked about it. Children may ask many questions and want to know intricate details relating to the death and it is important that children have such details explained to them clearly, so that they understand.”

Confront any fears

“Often the death of a relative can trigger feelings of fear in children, and worry that someone else, or even themselves, may be ‘next’. Our advice, as always, would be to answer any questions as honestly as possible and provide enough information so that children are not left with gaps in knowledge, so there is no risk that the child may create inaccurate thoughts.”

Don’t use confusing metaphors

“When telling a young child that a close relative, or parent has died, it’s important to avoid using metaphors like ‘they have gone to sleep’ or ‘gone away for a long time’ as it can be very confusing for a young child to understand.

"Try and plan in advance some clear and practical language that is age appropriate for the child to understand. It might sound blunt to other adults, but in the long-term it will be easier for the child.”

You shouldn't bottle up your own grief around children (NickS/Getty)

Give children space

“Each bereavement is unique, and children grieve in different ways. It is important to give children space to grieve, but they should also be encouraged to talk about their thoughts and feelings. Do not be alarmed if your child does not look like they have been affected by the death of a close relative. Children cannot sustain emotional pain in the way that adults can and tend to move in and out of grief and can appear to be coping much better than we might expect.”

Don’t hide your grief

“It is important that the parent or guardian of the child is open about their feelings and grief. If they try to hide it, the child will feel like they are not able to talk about it and might suppress their feelings which is not healthy.”

Be prepared for questions

“Often children will have questions about the person that has died but also about death in general. This might be the first time the child has been affected by death, so naturally questions will arise. These can often be quite difficult to answer, especially as the parent or caregiver is also grieving. Our advice is to try and be as honest as you can to try to help the child understand what has happened.”

Get creative

“Children can find writing their feelings down in a poem, diary or in a letter to the relative who has died helpful. Some children might also find it beneficial to paint, draw or build a model to express their feelings of grief and show how much the bereaved person meant to them. Children and young people also tell us that creating a memory box can also be an effective way to remember all the happy times they spent with the person who has died.”


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