We’re delighted that Clare Shaw has taken the time to provide the following blog post. Clare is an author of children’s books and therapeutic stories for children of all ages. All her titles come from her own experiences and are written and designed to help children through tricky situations, such as bereavement or a parental work deployment. Each book has areas where children can write or draw their own thoughts and feelings making each a truly personal journal. Clare’s books are widely used by Funeral Directors, Charities and Schools across the UK. We’ve asked Clare to share some ideas on how to support a grieving child.
A child’s response to death can depend on a number of factors; their relationship with the deceased, the family’s belief system and their age, as examples. How they deal with their grief will be dependent on the support they have around them – which can be tricky when the rest of the family is also grieving. Those first few days and weeks following a death are so important, but the support must continue way beyond that. Below is some age-appropriate guidance:
Up to around the age of four there is little understanding from the child as to what has happened. They will sense that something is different and that those around them are sad. As difficult as it can be, it is best to try to stick to a routine. Try to keep things as normal as possible for them to give them a sense of security. If they are old enough to ask questions, always answer honestly. Using phrases such as “Granny’s gone to sleep” can be extremely damaging to young children.
Once children reach between 5 and 8, their understanding changes. They can now understand the finality of death. They may ask a lot of questions and repeat these questions until they cement their understanding. They may want to know how and why the death happened and what happens next. Being honest with the child is always going to be the best policy. Trying to find ways to make things ‘easier’ for them could actually make things much harder for them in the future.
Children at this age have also developed ‘Magical Thinking’. Children believe that their thoughts and wishes can absolutely come true! This can lead them to believe that something they said or did cause their loved one’s death. Listen to their concerns and offer reassurance. Try to avoid phrases such as “don’t be silly”, this is something huge to them and may have been troubling them for some time. They may need some encouragement to express their emotions. It may be too difficult to verbalise so drawing, writing and play can help with this.
Between the ages of 9 and 12, they may look more closely at those around them to work out how they should be behaving. Try to be as open as possible about your own feelings to encourage and support their need to express themselves. It may really help to involve them with funeral plans and ideas. If this is their first funeral, they may be concerned about what they might see. They may have lots of questions that they deem to be ‘silly’ e.g. “Will I see the body?”, “What will I wear?”. Try to explain as much as possible. If the family don’t know, the funeral arranger will be able to help with this.
When children hit their teens, they are going through so many social, emotional and hormonal changes anyway, adding grief to the mix can be quite tricky. They may cover up their emotions to protect those around them. They may also cover them to appear strong. Set a good example and be open with them about your own feelings. They may also benefit from being involved in arrangements.
Keep communications open and ensure they know you’re there to listen to them when they need you. They will be going through such a range of emotions, changing by the minute at times, that they will be confused and exhausted. Reassurance and openness will work well.
At any age, the child or teen may look to those around them as to how to behave. Be as open as you can with your emotions. If they feel they have to cover things up, this could cause long-term mental health problems.
Try to stick to a routine as much as possible. It may be the child wants to go straight back to school. They may wish to feel ‘normal’ and that’s the best place they feel they can. It may be they need more time with the family. Bedtimes and meal times should be encouraged to stay the same.
Be honest with them. Kids are pretty good at knowing when we’re not. It could also be quite difficult for a child to believe that Grandad is a butterfly or Auntie is lost! Honesty is always going to be the best option following a death.
Involve them if you can. It may be they had a favourite song they associated with their loved one. Maybe they’d be comforted by hearing it at the funeral.
If your child is struggling with a tough situation, specifically the loss of a loved one, then why not look at some of Clare’s books at https://cskidsbooks.com/. Our thanks go to Clare for taking the time to share her knowledge and experience with us.
Suggested readingSupporting our local children's Grief Café
Bereavement Training Programme Introduced
Coming to terms with grief