The curiosity of children leads them to ask many questions, and should the topic of death arise, it can be difficult to know how you should navigate such a delicate subject.
Many children may face bereavement through the passing of an elderly relative, the tragic early death of a parent, or the loss of a friend at school through illness or some other unfortunate accident.
Parents might choose to avoid conversations about death when talking to their children in fear of upsetting them, but a 35% increase in the number of children referred to NHS mental health services since 2018 indicates that open, honest discussions could be the better alternative.
Discussing death openly with children at the right time can help them better understand the process, the reason we feel such sadness over a loss, and how they are certainly not alone in their grief.
When Should You Tell a Child About a Death?
It can be extremely difficult finding a way to tell children about a death, especially if you’re coping with the grief yourself.
The last thing you want to do is upset a child or find yourself breaking down in tears as you tell them.
For this reason, it is tempting to continuously put it off, always telling yourself it’s not the right time or that you can’t find the right words.
The truth is, both adults and children are likely to be much better off if you tell them about the death as soon as you can.
Avoiding doing so could see them learn about it inappropriately from another source, or they could overhear you discussing the death with someone else.
Furthermore, once children reach a certain age, they become surprisingly adept at picking up on the atmosphere and will likely sense that something isn’t right.
This can lead them to feel anxious about the unsettling atmosphere.
Who Should Inform a Child About a Death?
The person to tell a child about a death should be someone the child is both familiar and comfortable with – ideally a family member or someone who has been around for a significant portion of the child’s life.
It can be an emotionally charged task, so whoever tells the child may also appreciate someone nearby to offer they themself the support they may.
Choose a place where the child feels comfortable, such as in the family home, with no distractions.
It’s difficult to know how a child will react when learning about a death, so remain physically close as you tell them and be prepared for questions.
Things to Say When Telling a Child About a Death
While telling a child about a death it’s important to be as clear and concise as possible.
The child may not fully understand, so might be confused by the news or curious with many relating questions.
Saying things like ‘lost’ or ‘passed away’ may seem a softer approach than saying ‘died’ but could easily confuse a child.
The best way to ensure they understand is by simply asking them.
This also creates a healthy way to continue the conversation and build on their understanding of death.
We aren’t all trained in how to deal with grief ourselves or how to deliver the news to somebody else, so it’s no surprise that the task can seem so daunting.
Following the following four steps during the conversation can help you choose your words and better handle a child’s rection when telling them about a death:
1. Always Tell the Truth
When informing a child about a death, truth and honesty is key.
A child may ask “what happened to grandad?”, and in response it would be wise to be upfront by telling them that grandad has died.
If you try to soften the delivery by saying something along the lines of “grandad has gone to heaven”, a young child may want to pay a visit and not understand why they can’t go.
Likewise, using personal faith to tell a child something like “Jesus has taken grandad” can lead to the child resenting Jesus for taking grandad away.
Children at a young age know no better, therefore they understandably take what they are told as fact but are unlikely to share how they interpret things.
2. Communicate Clearly
If the child questions what death is, break things down so that they are easily understood.
For example, you could explain the seriousness of grandad’s illness, or explain that grandad had lived for so many years that his body simply couldn’t continue to work anymore.
It’s important you also explain that just because someone is ill, or because someone is old, it doesn’t mean that they are suddenly going to die any time soon.
Failing to get this point across could lead the child to worry and feel concerned about the most basic sickness, or feel a need to bring it up when surrounded by other grandparents etc.
3. Highlight the Positives
Although there is heartache, there are also positives that you can highlight, such as letting the child know that when a person dies, they no longer feel any pain, or that even though they have died and will no longer physically be around, the memories created and spent with them will always be there.
You can point out that eventually they will be able to visit their grave with messages and to leave flowers at their headstone, or see where they have been scattered if they were cremated and laid to rest at a favourite location.
This can help the child better understand what the differences are between life and death while realising that they will still be able to remember them forever.
4. Express Your Own Feelings
It’s natural for adults to think that they should only show signs of strength for children so that they don’t worry and see mum and dad showing signs of weakness, but that can send the wrong message.
Children trust adults and learn how respond to situations by listening to us and watching our actions.
By sharing our emotions and letting children know that we also feel sadness, it makes them aware of how perfectly normal it is to feel sorrow or to cry when we feel sad.
Leaving the room every time our emotions overcome us to protect a child could see them copy our example.
A Child’s Reaction When You Tell Them Someone Has Died
Children are still learning the basics of life, so it would be wildly unrealistic to expect them to convey their complex feelings through words.
They are far more likely to reveal their emotions through actions, though over time they may pick up on how adults around them handle situations and communicate.
This is why it can be helpful to be open with how you’re feeling and regularly communicate this to them in simple terms.
Some of the most common reactions you can expect from children when you tell them someone has died include:
· Asking many questions
Children are likely to become curious, so you should expect them to ask many questions, some of which may even catch you off guard.
· A delayed response
A short attention span means that many children typically need time to fully process information. They may want to discuss things in more detail at a later time, whether that be hours, days, weeks, or months.
· A change of subject
In relation to their quick attention span, it’d be no surprise to see a child soon turn the conversation to something completely unrelated once their immediate curiosity for details is met. With young children, you could find yourself discussing death with them one minute and trying to fix their broken toy the next!
Common Behaviours of Unacknowledged Grief
If grief goes unresolved or unacknowledged, it has the potential to affect our general mood and behaviour – the same goes for children.
Many don’t want to face the grief, instead choosing to push it to the back of their mind for as long as possible, but this can have a detrimental impact on their day-today living.
While other children struggle to cope with grief, but don’t want to talk about it or know how to bring it up.
Some of the most common behaviours often found in children that are suffering from unacknowledged grief, or who are struggling to cope with a death include:
- A lack of interest to participate in class and other social activities
- A drop in academic performance
- Bursts of anger and frustration
- Difficulty sleeping
- Loss of appetite
- Reduced concentration
- Not wanting to attend school
- A fear of being left alone
When Do Children Begin to Understand Death?
Most children begin to understand the concept of death at around 3 or 4 years of age.
They are unlikely to understand that death is inevitable and permanent, but they will begin to understand that things do indeed die, and no longer require food, water or sunlight.
We may not realise, but children are often surrounded by death and aware of what it is through cartoon characters, pets, leaves and flowers etc. all dying.
As they notice these things more frequently, they may begin to raise the topic of death by asking questions.
Don’t let these questions take you by surprise – they can often be very matter of fact, such as “mummy, will you die?”.
This is just children innocently trying to understand more about what death is and who it can affect.
As children grow older and become adolescent teens, they will fully understand the concept of death and will develop more abstract thoughts.
This could involve becoming anxious about losing family members, friends, or pets.
If you’re concerned that anxiety and worry about death is affecting your child’s day-to-day life, contact a mental care provider for expert advice on the next steps to take to offer your child the help and assistance they require.
Should Children Attend Funerals?
Whether children should attend a funeral or not is down to personal opinion.
There is no right or wrong answer.
Some families choose to avoid taking children along to funerals out of fear of upsetting them at a young age, or because they believe they may not be able to remain quiet and behaved throughout.
Other families decide that they want the children to be present and involved during the funeral so that they can better understand the rituals of funerals and will be able to look back in years to come glad about the fact they were there to pay their respect.
Whatever you decide, it may be worthwhile to discuss the funeral with children so that they understand what it is and why they exist.
Even if you decide to not take a child to a funeral, you could ask them to write a note or draw a picture for the person who has died, so that they can still feel an important part of the event.
If you decide that you do want to take a child to the funeral, have a simple conversation with them so that they are aware of what to expect on the day.
You can prepare for taking a child to a funeral by:
Telling Them Why We Have Funerals
Explain that a funeral provides a chance for everyone to remember that special person’s life and so that everyone can help each other cope with the sadness they feel.
Highlight What They Can Expect to Happen at the Funeral
Discuss everything they can expect to experience throughout the funeral, such as the music and hymns they can expect to hear, the people who will stand up and give speeches, whether the casket will be open or closed, and that many people will take flowers to show their love for the person. If they are to attend the burial, you can also discuss everything they can expect to see at the graveside.
Be Prepared for Restlessness
Young children can be unpredictable and may change their mind or become restless at any point during the funeral – including in the middle of the service! This can be prepared for in advance having a clear route to take them away from the service, even if temporarily, or to have someone you trust on hand to do so if you’re unable. Forcing a restless child to remain seated while hushing them to be quiet is unlikely to have a positive outcome.
It’s perfectly natural for an adult to want to protect a child from the realities of death and funerals, but it’s worth considering whether you believe they would benefit more in the long run with being given an option to say goodbye, get their own closure and gain a better understanding on grief.
You could offer them an opportunity to choose some decorations or images for the service or select some flowers especially from them so that they have a sense of control over the loss.
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