Children and grief: how to talk to kids about death

How should we speak to our children about death? We ask bereavement counsellor Julia Davies about what to say, creative activities to try and when to turn to the professionals… 

Julia Davies trained as a person centred counsellor. She spent many years working for Cruse Bereavement, before taking on general counselling and supervisor roles, alongside her current post at CARIS, in north London; a charity that supports children and young people aged 3-19 who are dealing with a bereavement.

When someone passes away, should you make up stories about what’s happened, or stick to the truth?
Most parents tell their children the truth but maybe not the full details. The parent is grieving herself so will maybe only be able to handle certain questions. If the bereaved person chose suicide there can be a lot of guilt and shame for the family so they may decide to wait till the child is older before they say that the death was by suicide.

Are there age-appropriate explanations?
Yes. Young children do not always understand that death if final. They may think the person is sleeping or is buried but could perhaps come back. It is very important for the children to be able to talk openly about their anxieties or fears. This is where a bereavement counsellor can be useful, as they do not have the emotional ties with the child that the parent does and will not burst into tears if the questions are very poignant.

As a counsellor, I would already have spoken to the parent and somebody at their school too – if the recommendation came from the school – as it is important for me to know what the child does/does not know. I also need to know the religious and cultural background of the child as I need to be respectful of these too.

What reaction might you expect?
It would depend on who had died and the relationship the child had with the deceased. A child would be much more upset if her older sister died than a grandmother who lived in another country who she’d rarely met.

The main stages of grieving are Shock, Anger, Acceptance, Resolution. These feelings come in waves, moving backwards and forwards, and hopefully by the end of the first year would be considerably less.

The child might well become worried that if her older sister has died she, or another sibling, may die too and worry every time she gets a cold or tummy-ache that this will lead to dying. For any family, losing a child is devastating as the parent should die before the child. It is very difficult to make sense of why a child should die, as it does not make sense.

Even though the loss of a child can put immense pressure on the parents’ relationship, with each parent grieving separately, it’s so important to talk openly about the life, as well as the death of the child who’s died. Even though it may be very upsetting for the parent – the child needs to know that she can approach the parents and talk and talk, hopefully till she feels she doesn’t need to ask more questions. Visiting the grave, planting a special tree where the family can sit and think or even talk out loud to/about the dead person can be very healing.

It’s really important to be honest with children but maybe just sieve the details so they don’t feel bombarded

Is there any reaction that should concern you?
Parents should keep an eye on changes in behaviour of the child – does he still see his friends, invite them over? How is he at school? If a close family member has died (parent or sibling) it can often be blocking for the child educationally. He might not be able to progress with his reading/writing, concentrate on his studies or do well in his exams. He just needs the pressure taken off for a while, as gradually things will hopefully return to a new type of ‘normal’. He may want to sleep with a light on perhaps, have a soft toy/something else to hold on to that belonged to the person who died.

Should you be guided by the child as to whether or not to discuss what has happened further or should you bring it into the conversation as often as possible to ‘normalise’ it?
It is healthy to talk about the person who has died. Obviously if the child does not want to she should not be forced to talk. Having photos around the home, maybe putting up artwork of the person, framing poems they have written/liked or reading their favourite books can be a way of staying close to the person who died and can be a focus for conversation in a more matter of fact way, without the remaining children feeling they have to speak. It is also good if friends and extended family are encouraged to talk about their memories of the person who died, as children usually love to hear new tales about a person who they were very close to.

In what ways can grief manifest in children?
The child may become withdrawn from their friends, tearful, have bodily pains, not want to go to school but stay home with a parent perhaps as they might be worried that the second parent might die too. It is important that the family liaises with the school as the school can offer link support too and perhaps create an area at school, with a named individual, where the child can go by herself, or with a friend, where she feels safe.

At what point should you seek professional help?
If a child seems particularly depressed and things are seriously falling apart at home the school would probably speak to the parent/s to see what help the family individuals need. If a sibling has died, there are counsellors from the children’s hospital or somewhere like Winston’s Wish who could support the family at home, offer days out, holidays away with other families who have experienced loss, as well as social workers who can check that each family member is being supported.

In what ways is a counsellor equipped to help that a parent might not be?
The bereaved child or young person may feel he cannot talk to his family because they just cry and he is then left with unanswered questions. He may also have been told perhaps that as his dad has died he now needs to be head of the family and he doesn’t feel strong enough and really needs to be supported himself – by somebody who can actively listen and support and be there consistently, each week, without falling apart. A bereavement counsellor working with children will have done a professional counselling training course and then specialised in bereavement and art therapy. She will be supervised and will also have ongoing continual professional development.

How long does it usually take for children to come to terms with a death?
For most bereaved children the first year can be particularly difficult as there will be so many family/religious events when the dead person will be missed – birthdays/Christmas for example.

Over the course of the grieving period, are there any activities parents can do with children (maybe using creativity) that can help?
It could be useful to encourage the children to draw pictures of times they remember being with the deceased or maybe write down their feelings about the person who died, a private journal for older children. They could perhaps make a memory box to keep photos or special mementoes in and the child could decorate that box.

One that many children enjoy is making a sand jar. This involves filling a small jar with coarse salt, emptying it on to four or five small paper plates, mixing the salt with four/five differently-coloured crushed pastel crayons – each colour on a separate plate – and then filling the jar with perhaps four or five levels of the coloured ‘sand’ and securing at the top with cotton-wool before putting the lid on. Each colour evokes a different memory of the person who died and a little tag could be tied around the top of the jar with a code to denote the memories. Children/young people and adults seem to love this activity and talking about the memories that arise.

Any other comments?
It’s really important to be honest with children but maybe just sieve the details so they don’t feel bombarded. There are books that can be bought to share with them or for them to read themselves, or books to colour in – look at Cruse Bereavement/Grief Encounter/Winston’s Wish websites. If it’s too hard to talk directly to the children check out what professional help is available – school can be very useful here. Children can be seen at centres/school or at home, depending on the counselling services available in their area.

Useful websites:
Cruse Bereavement
Grief Encounter
Winston’s Wish

Photo credit: Mom and Daughter by Donnie Ray Jones