Industry expert, Tamsin Grimmer shares her valuable advice and guidance for tackling the most sensitive of subjects.
"I know Grandad is dead, but when will we see him again?"
After my father passed away, one of the hardest questions I was asked by my, then, pre-school-aged daughter was, “When will we see him again?” Not only did this bring back painful memories but it was difficult not to feel frustrated when I had to answer my child, honestly and repeatedly, that they wouldn’t see Grandad again. As children do not understand the permanence of death until about 5 years old, it is quite common for children to ask the same questions over and over and in doing so they are trying to reassure themselves, so we must answer consistently each time in order to offer the security they are seeking.
Sadly, death is a part of life and according to ChildBereavementUK a parent of children under 18 dies every 22 minutes in the UK. I’m sure that the recent pandemic has increased this shocking statistic even further, so it stands to reason that unfortunately many children in our care will lose a loved one. Therefore, we need to be prepared to talk with our children about death and what this means.
Death is a very abstract concept and talking in terms of concrete things that children might understand can help. For example, “When we are dead, we do not breathe, our heart stops beating and we cannot play anymore.” Whether or not you are religious might also have an impact on how you want to talk about it. In my Christian tradition, we believe in heaven so when talking with my own children about death, I have referred to this, however, it is important that we do not confuse children with the phrases we use. So try to avoid using analogies like ‘falling asleep’ or ‘at rest’. These can lead to misconceptions about what this means or even lead to them becoming frightened of resting or sleeping themselves. Instead, we should factually explain about life cycles and that every living thing will die one day. We can reassure them that we might feel sad and miss the person who died, but we have lots of lovely, happy memories we can share and possibly photographs to look at to help us to remember their life. We also need to ensure that we offer plenty of opportunities for the child to talk about how they feel, but if they don’t want to talk, don’t make them.
Key principles when supporting children with bereavement:
- Be as honest as possible with your child and use terms that are factual and portray information, avoiding the potential for misunderstandings. Use correct language, e.g. dead, death, dying, died, buried etc. and encourage your child to have their own narrative about it.
- Remember that a bereavement brings children a lot of uncertainty, so try to ensure that changes in your home are kept to a minimum. Familiar surroundings can help a child to remain feeling safe and secure.
- Never be offended or affronted by the directness of a young child’s questions and comments. They are trying to fathom the unfathomable and we need to remain sensitive to their needs, even if they appear to be insensitive themselves.
- Children’s behaviour may regress after a bereavement, for example by wetting themselves, thumb sucking or becoming excessively clingy to a carer. We must offer understanding, reassurance and security at this time and not chastise these behaviours. They will pass with time as the child feels more safe and secure.
- Family rituals around death should be explained to children and, whenever possible, children should be given the choice about attending services of remembrance, funerals, burials and cremations.
It is also quite common for grieving children to move in and out of grief quickly and when children are focused on their grief for one moment then appear to have totally forgotten about it, we call this ‘puddle jumping’.
Lastly, children can experience bereavement and feelings of loss for other reasons, such as a parent leaving, or a sibling moving away. Some professionals have suggested that during the current pandemic we are all grieving the loss of our former lives. When we return to our settings, things will be different, changes will have been made and this will have a big impact on our children. So be prepared to support your children with feelings of bereavement and loss in the future.
Some ideas of how to appropriately support children in thinking about death include:
- Have an ethos of permission in your home so that words like ‘dead’ and ‘die’ are not banned from your vocabulary but instead prompt discussion.
- Answer any questions about the death as honestly as possible, remembering that it’s OK to say, “I don’t know!”
- Don’t talk about death or the person who has died over children’s heads - instead include the child in the conversation.
- Do not avoid talking about your loved one or hide your own grief. Try to be honest about how you feel and why, e.g. “I am crying because I am sad. I am sad because Grandad has died and I won’t see him again. Can you give me a cuddle and perhaps we can talk about our favourite things we used to do with him.”
- Use playful interactions as a means of exploring death, for example, play at doctors and nurses or superheroes.
- Read stories and books which include death or deal with bereavement and grief (e.g. “Waterbugs and Dragonflies”, by D. Stickney, “The Invisible String” , by P. Karst.)
- Storytelling – make up stories in which a character dies or undergoes changes, or provide opportunities for children to make up their own stories.
- Introduce children to the idea of life cycles, for example butterflies. You could even raise some tadpoles from frogspawn or butterflies from caterpillars.
- Think about changes over time in the natural world e.g. growth and decay.
- Share some memories about your loved one, perhaps light a candle, look at some photos and reminisce about the good times you shared together.
About the author
Tamsin Grimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.
Tamsin has written two books – Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children and School Readiness and the Characteristics of Effective Learning.