At some stage in each of our lives we will experience the loss of someone to…. death. Despite death having been a part of human experience for all of documented history, it still feels like it is such a taboo subject to talk about. This sense of wanting to avoid the topic is largely, I think, because it is one that comes with BIG feelings and, perhaps, with questions that even the smartest grown up may not be able to answer in easy ways. All of this complexity and avoidance of big feelings can mean that, often, people do not get around to talking to their children about death and dying at all. Children can get thrown in the emotional deep-end without some understanding of what is going on for them and for others when someone dies.
Grief is often used in psychology to talk about any loss – moving school, losing contact with a friend, or even losing a favourite toy or changing houses. Adults may be a little more in tune with this kind of loss for children and find it easier to speak openly and offer support, strategies and distraction. When it comes to talking about loss due to death, we need to be just as open, sensitive, and supportive.
Many children experience their first big grief reactions in relation to the death of a family pet and this is a very good time to have more conversations about dying and death.
Back in the day, it was thought that grief had stages that people must progress through, but we are now much wiser to the ways people react to grief and loss and know that it is a way more complicated picture than a simple stage approach might have us think. The size and shape of the feeling will depend on many different things – your relationship with the person, your last contact with that person, how you are travelling emotionally at any given point, how much other grief and loss you have experienced….the list can be long. Essentially, though, if a psychologist or grief counsellor is involved, they will tend to focus on what the loss actually means for each person at a particular time. Obviously, the more complex the relationships and lifestyles, the more complex the grief reaction may be and psychologists work hard to try to understand what the death means for the person in terms of their beliefs about themselves, their past, their future and their relationships.
Because we understand the reactions to death will be influenced by beliefs, it’s important that we consider what a person believes happen when someone dies – this is the case for kids, too!
Of course, this takes us right to the heart of people’s values, culture, practicalities or spirituality.
It’s natural that we all consider what happens next. Children will likely consider this, too, so we need to be ready to gently share a range of beliefs about death. It can be difficult to talk about complex ideas in simple ways, and if you are struggling, you could try my book “Life is Like the Wind”, where I’ve tried to cover some of the beliefs and offer children possibilities for knowing and accepting their feelings.
Be prepared for talking and questions as young children try to make sense of tricky new concepts. Children, especially young children, usually ask very straightforward questions and many adults are concerned about given children straightforward answers.
Children may want to know the practical questions…like “why are they in that box”, “why do they put a cross on the ground”, “why do people have to die”, or even “if the body is being buried, what will they do with the head”?
It’s great if children want to ask questions – it can indicate that they are trying to nut stuff out and make sense of it for themselves. If your child has questions about death, it can sometimes feel like you are being put on the spot and it may open up some tightly pushed down grief of your own, but take time to answer. If you cannot come up with a good answer, it’s always fine to suggest that together you might do some research or ask someone who may know a little more about things
Other children may not want to know anything or ask anything and that’s okay, too…just keep an eye out for them and a heart open for them in case they are keeping their feelings closely guarded.
If a child is attending a funeral service, be sure to give them a bit of a guide as to what to expect. They should know that other people at the service will be feeling a range of feelings and that some may be crying or very upset. Give them some ideas about whether they might need to sit or stand at certain times, that people will be talking about the person who has died, there may be pictures of the person who has died, there may be a coffin and the coffin might be opened or closed, there might be photos and music and, importantly, be sure to let them know what to do if they themselves get upset.
The thing about grief and kids is that as well as dealing with their own feelings, it’s highly likely that a child’s “go-to” people are also affected by the same loss. Often the grown-ups in the situation are also managing their own big feelings which can mean that they may be less emotionally available.
Sometimes the grown-ups can even be less physically available if there is a lot for the adults to do after a death – organising, meeting, phoning, greeting well wishers…all takes time away from routine. So, as well as the person who has died, the child can lose access to their usual support mechanism. It can be useful during a time of intense grief that adults make a routine time to be available for their child. Often, it helps if the shared time is around bedtime – because we all know how busy our heads can get about our fears and worries when we stop and try to be still and quiet at the end of the day.
Despite being associated with strong feelings (even strong feelings of not feeling!) and affecting our ability to function, grief in and of itself is not in our mental health manuals as a disorder. That’s because it’s actually “normal” or typical to feel a range of emotions and experiences at the loss of a significant other. Of course, if the sadness, upset, heaviness or numbness continues for too long without gradually lifting, please be sure to ask a professional for some help.