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How to deal with a death in the family

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Losing a loved one is distressing for anyone, let alone a child who may not have encountered death before. How can you explain and help them manage their feelings, when you’re grieving?

Help children understand

If someone’s very ill, and it’s just a question of time, then use that time to prepare your child. Kids often pick up on our anxieties, so there’s little point pretending nothing’s going on. They might never have seen you cry before, and be afraid – but hearing you talk about it can help a child see that it’s OK to be sad. And when the time comes, you’ll have made a start in helping them understand what it means when someone dies.

Be truthful

Think about what words you are going to use. Simple, age-appropriate language will help your child to talk to you about how they’re feeling, too – and don’t be afraid to say ‘die’ and ‘dead’ rather than euphemisms such as ‘gone to sleep’, which could be  confusing. Try to be as truthful as you can, while sparing them the details. For instance, you might talk about doctors not having strong enough medicine to make the person better. Or you might say that ‘Granddad’s heart was too tired and it stopped working, so he died’. It can be useful to find a simple phrase that a child can understand, remember and repeat.

how to deal with a death in the family

How children may react

You might be expecting floods of tears but kids often seem remarkably unconcerned. Don’t be surprised if, having listened to your careful explanation, your offspring just says, ‘OK, can I have a biscuit now?’ You might take that to mean you’ve done such a great job they have no questions. But more likely they need time to mull things over, and the questions will come later, even some that seem heartless – ‘I miss Grandpa, can we buy a new one?’

 Your own faith or spirituality

It’s perhaps easier to explain death to a child if your family has a way of speaking about life, death and an afterlife that’s rooted in faith. But those of us without such convictions might end up creating our own mythology to help our children ‘picture’ death, and ‘place’ the lost loved one somewhere in the world. For example, it might comfort your child to think that the dead person is ‘up in the stars’, and that becomes their own secular version of heaven. Depending on the child’s age, and your preference, you could choose an image to give to them, or you can try explaining a couple of different beliefs, ask them what they think, and then help them reach an explanation which makes sense to them.

Funerals

Whether to take a child to a funeral service or wake is often a tricky decision. If you think it will help them say goodbye, and understand that the dead person isn’t coming back, then it can be a good thing. But if it’s likely that adult emotions will distress your child further, then maybe not. Remember that no matter how huge your grief seems, your job is to guide your children through theirs. So if you feel your own sorrow is going to overwhelm you, consider calling in help, to give you some space to grieve.how to deal with a death in the family

If you do decide to take your child along, then it’s a good idea to talk to them in advance about where you’re going, what will happen and what they’ll see and hear (with a whispered reminder or two during proceedings). That way you help them get to grips with an unfamiliar event, and also avoid untimely questions (and don’t their voices carry?) – ‘Is Uncle Phil inside that box?’ or ‘When is Nanny getting burned up?’ It might be hard for a child to understand that there might be laughter at a wake – ‘Why aren’t people sad anymore?’ – so prepare them for this too.

Let people around you know

Throughout this time – from waiting, to breaking the news, and getting through the ceremony – it’s important that your childcare providers know what’s going on, and how you’re discussing it with your child. That way a childminder can answer questions consistently with what you’ve said, and nurseries can be on the lookout for ‘let’s play orphans’ and conversations about death that might upset other children. And you will know that any ‘acting out’ of your child’s emotions – whether through role play, bad behaviour, nightmares or tearfulness – will be understood, and your child will be comforted and supported to deal with how they feel, even when you’re not around.

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About Alison McKay

About Alison McKay

Alison McKay is a charity PR professional with over 15 years' experience in full-time, part-time and jobshare roles. Since being made redundant while on maternity leave, she has divided her time between working for a local museum, freelance and volunteer writing, and being chief wrangler to a two-year-old mud-magnet and an almost-seven-year-old wannabe dog-care worker with a penchant for hair accessories. Alison's hobbies include yoga, reading cookery books and putting away just enough clean laundry to keep the pile below 3ft tall.

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