The importance of honesty
Sometimes, in an attempt to protect children from the reality of death, we distort the facts of life and death to soften the truth, particularly for younger children. But by doing this, we can inadvertently create a mystery around death, which forces children to use their imagination to fill in the blanks. This only adds further confusion to their sadness. So when someone they love or someone important to them has died, it’s vital that we are honest.
We often don’t give our children enough credit for their capacity to understand, but in reality, children understand death from a young age – they see dead flies on a windowsill or little dead animals in the garden, and their heroes even die in cartoons.
As parents, it’s absolutely natural for us to want to shield them from exposure to the awful things that happen, but they do happen and are often out of our control. Life is not an endless series of happy moments; instead, it is always interspersed with traumas. When we’re happy, we show it through our laughter. When we’re sad, we show it through our tears. Both emotions need honest and equal expression. By accepting and experiencing all life events as they occur, we can live fully and meaningfully, as long as we can process the emotional events practically as they arise, deal with them, and then move on.
When a death occurs, create a safe space where you can share your feelings about it. Children learn their coping mechanisms form the adults around them. You lead – go first and be honest about how the loss has made you feel.
Use straightforward language to explain what has happened. By using simple language to explain what ‘dead’ means, we are teaching children a truth: that all life at some stage comes to an end; that people can die when they are old, or if their bodies stop working properly through illness, or if there has been an accident.
In the case of a suicide, it’s all right to admit that we don’t always know why someone has died, and we have to be honest about that too. When you have finished speaking, allow your child time to think: there is much learning to be had in silence.
To help your child understand and come to terms with the death of a loved one, try these tips:
✔️ Let your child take their time – don’t grab them in a big hug, to try to soften the blow.
✔️ Don’t just carry on speaking for the sake of it, or because you aren’t sure how to help your child.
✔️ When they start to speak, try not to interrupt.
✔️ Be accepting in your words and in your actions. There is no right or wrong way to react when we receive the news of a death. Our reactions are as unique to us as our own fingerprint.
✔️ Try not to offer an opinion, but do feedback words to show you have understood and don’t interrupt their flow.
✔️ Do not analyse what they are feeling and don’t compare how you feel. Comparisons minimise the importance of their feelings and if they don’t match yours, this can affect their self-esteem and confidence, creating imaginary failings where there are none.
It’s a fact that grief does make us feel different. Just as they would try on a new pair of trainers to see how they fit, children need to give their feelings verbal expression, in order to connect fully with what is going on inside them. Speaking their words out loud can help unravel emotional confusion and can help make sense of what is going on in their heads. Verbalising emotional pain is a powerful release and does not require any comment from others, apart from acknowledgement and acceptance.
All children, no matter what age, must be able to talk and share unconditionally. When we speak about how we are feeling, we aren’t having a conversation, we are making a statement.We can teach our children that it’s OK to cry when we are sad and that it is OK to be scared.
We can teach our children that it’s OK to cry when we are sad; to share our tears together; that it is OK to be scared. Allowing children to express their own reactions without comparisons will give them emotional confidence and will create well-balanced adults.
Where possible, continue to do things and activities, as this can help keep some structure and familiarity of routine.
Younger children and grief
The reactions of young children can be unpredictable and challenging behaviour can result. Young children do not have the vocabulary of adults, and cannot access the same stress outlets, which can create an inner explosion of emotion.
• Be honest in your language
Grief can manifest physically in both children and adults. Children may become clingy, wet the bed or want to sleep with the lights on. They may be terrified of falling asleep following a death, frightened that they or those they love won’t wake up, because they may have been told that the person who has died has ‘gone to sleep’ or ‘fallen asleep’. This is why it’s so important to be completely honest in your language – no euphemisms.
• Give love and reassurance
All these physical changes are quite natural, as they try to find an anchor in the new chaos of their lives. This is their way of trying to process what has happened and they need time to balance. Give lots of love and reassurance. Explain in simple words that what they are experiencing is OK. Above all, do not draw attention to their reactions or make them feel that there is something wrong with them.
• Answer questions honestly
Be ready to answer their questions at all times. Young children have short attention spans and may ask the same questions over and over again. Always be patient with them and answer with honesty. It’s normal for children to feel anger, fear and confusion, because they don’t understand or can’t accept that they can’t see the person who has died any more. They need to know that whatever words they use will be acceptable.
• Create a scrapbook
Sometimes, young children don’t understand that death is permanent, so creating a scrapbook gives the opportunity to say, ‘We can’t see them because she/he has died, but we can look at their photographs and see them in this way.’ Children can process information far more practically than adults if they are given the truth.
• Don’t distract them with treats
When they have an emotional meltdown, don’t try to stop their tears. Just be there with your love and offer hugs if they want one. Don’t try to distract them from their sadness by offering them sweets or chocolate in an attempt to make them feel better. This can send mixed messages, suggesting that feeling sad is wrong and should be stopped, rather than accepting and working through the emotion. Offering sweets or chocolate can inadvertently drive them to soothe themselves with food or some other substance, which can manifest in later years as comfort eating.
Teenagers and grief
They may withdraw, struggling to manage the overwhelming and confusing feelings of sadness and grief following the death. Anger triggered by fear and sadness can result, changing their behaviour. This can have a knock-on effect at school, which can then create further pressures.
• Maintain a consistent routine
To help support them, try to keep routines the same, where possible. Creating support with the other adults in the teen’s life can also help to provide a cushion.
• Keep a look-out for signs of stress
It’s natural for children at any age to feel frightened following a death. They may withdraw
and attempt to carry on as normal, not sure of how they should react. Always watch for any signs of stress. Try not to tell them how they should be feeling and don’t force them to talk. They will do so when they are ready. Explain there is no set path of emotional expression following loss. Take the lead and share your feelings openly and with honesty – this will show them it’s OK to recognise when we feel sad, confused and out of sorts.
• Be ready to offer extra support
Teens will often talk to their friends about how they are feeling. Extra awareness and support is necessary if you can see they have withdrawn from their friends and usual activities. If they are able to talk about how they feel, then together you can explore their reactions. Negative and harmful behaviour needs to be explained and understood.
• Help them make informed choices
Telling a teenager not to do something can make them do it more. Gently exploring their behaviour gives them the opportunity to make an informed choice, without the feeling of being judged. Allow them to express their feelings in their own words. Teenagers are still learning and trying to find their feet when in the company of adults. As an adult, sharing your tears, fears and words can set a positive example, but don’t walk on eggshells – if something is unacceptable, you must explain why.
• Encourage them to write a journal
Writing their feelings down can be cathartic if they’re struggling to talk. A sealed letter containing photos or personal mementos placed in the coffin can be a very positive action. Also, writing a journal is a great way of continuing the emotional relationship we still have with someone who has died.
Children are involved in all the other rituals we have in life – christenings, birthdays and anniversaries. So there is no purpose served in shielding them from a funeral, and we should not be afraid to involve children. We must also remember that funerals today are not the grim and sombre occasions of the past; in fact, they are very much a life story celebration of remembrance.
The opportunity to be involved in the farewell process can be an important learning and healing experience. Experiencing loss events together brings us closer to the people in our lives and is part of the cycle of life. Involving them in the funeral arrangements can help prepare children and teenagers for the funeral itself and wishes can be expressed. Creating new rituals together can also bring a positive energy.
To involve your kids in the funeral process, try the following tips:
- Talk them through the process of the day, so it isn’t completely alien, or even take them to the venue before the day of the funeral.
- Let them know that being a part of the ceremony may be, for them, an opportunity to show how much they loved the person who has died.
- Perhaps they may want to choose a poem to be read, select a song, light a candle, pick photographs or draw a picture to place in the casket.
- Inclusion and interaction helps bring down barriers as the attention shifts from ‘I am’ to ‘I will’, and this opens the door to new conversations.
- Your child may or may not want to see the person who has died. Some may need the visual reality, seeing with their own eyes that being dead is not the same as being asleep.
The importance of expressing emotion
When children ask questions, answer with honesty. When they cry, ask them what the matter is. Children cry for a reason. Let them know you are there for them. Give them your full attention. Just listen to their words and be ready with that hug if they want one. All emotion needs expression. Only then can we teach children to understand and value their feelings.
Similarly, if you feel like crying, let them see your tears. Show them it’s OK to cry when we feel sad. Don’t try to change how they feel. Encourage them to talk through their tears – the emotion is contained in the words and the words help to unravel the confusion.
Children should be encouraged to live in the present moment – to be able to say what they feel when they feel it, without fear of repercussion, cleansing their emotions as they move on. This will also teach them to respect the opinions and feelings of others.
They need to know it’s OK to talk about their loss or the person who has died, even if it does make them sad. Children also need to know they can rely on the adults around them to make them feel secure when they have been affected by a loss. A little encouragement and a lot of listening go a long way.
Remembering a loved one
Memory is how we hold on to the things we love. Choosing photographs together to make a scrapbook can evoke lovely conversations and memories to share.
Choose a beautiful memory box or a lovely glass jar for cherished items. Have a memory hour, where you all think of your favourite memories of the person who has died, write them down and put them in the memory box. On the sad days of remembrance, read them together and enjoy the warmth of memory. Grief is not permanent, it ebbs and flows. This is normal.
If you teach your children to communicate their feelings with those they love in safety, it can give them the confidence they need to get out there, get on with life and truly live. Their lives can then be navigated so much more easily, without wasting energy on trying to be or feel differently, in order to fit in. Teach them to delight in their uniqueness.
With no inner conflict, we can actually experience life as it happens in the present moment. There should be no framework, no rule book. It is whatever we are experiencing. Children are like sponges – they will absorb all that you put near them. So let them absorb the things that will serve them well.