When a staff member dies, colleagues, children and parents are impacted. This impact is felt in varying ways and in differing levels of understanding. Our last article focused on the loss of an early years staff member called Mandy, how this affected her colleagues and the integral role a manager can play during this time. This article will look at how parents and children are affected in the case of a staff member dying and how, as managers and leaders, we can ensure they feel supported.

It’s good to know what we mean when we use language that expresses grief. A good explanation of terms we use at these times is the following:

‘Bereavement is what happens to us, grief is what we feel and mourning is what we do.’

How then do children understand and respond to bereavement? There are many helpful articles about how children deal with the loss of a parent or loved one and some of these links can be found at the end of this article. The www.babycentre.co.uk site has some very informative thoughts concerning pre-schoolers and grief. They say:

“Pre-schoolers are aware of death from early on. They hear about it in fairy tales, see it on TV, and encounter dead bugs, birds, or squirrels on the sidewalk or roadside. Some children may have already experienced the death of a pet or a family member.

Despite this, there are aspects of death that kids this age still can’t understand. For example, they can’t grasp that death is permanent, inevitable, and happens to everyone.

Kids this age react to death in a variety of ways. Don’t be surprised if your child becomes clingy, regresses in toilet training, reverts to baby talk, or suddenly balks at going to her familiar pre-school.

On the other hand, she may not show any reaction to the death at all, or her responses may be intermittent, mixed in with her usual cheerfulness and play.

This is normal, too. Children process grief in bite-sized chunks, not all at once.”

The above applies mainly to the deaths of close loved ones. When it comes to the death of a child’s teacher or key person, children may still show similar signs of grief. However, their responses to this are based on how close they were to this person, their age, their experience of life and loss and on their own family’s culture and beliefs. As managers, leaders and owners, we are very aware that our early years families come from a rich variety of cultures and faith beliefs, so a one-size-fits-all response is not the way to go.

So, revisiting Mandy’s setting, the question for the manager was – how do we tell the children at nursery about Mandy?

It was clear that Mandy’s key children and many others understood that she was no longer at the nursery as they were used to seeing her smiling face, hearing her infectious laugh and feeling her teacher-heart as she encouraged them, tenderly placed plasters on small cuts and scrapes and opened up the world by examining ladybugs and butterflies in the garden together.

They missed her. Some asked questions about when she was coming back. The concept of ‘never, forever’ is not something they can grasp; indeed, many adults can hardly fully understand this notion.

It was very important to the manager that parents should take the lead in explaining Mandy’s passing to their children. This approach evidenced high regard for each family’s values and customs.

She sent an email to all the parents, informing them of the tragedy and giving them the option as to how they should tell their children. This was a measured and thoughtful thing to do, not only for cultural reasons, but because parents know their children best of all. They know their characters, their level of understanding and their life experiences, which would give them the soundest foundation on which to share this information.

An excerpt of this email reads:

“In the meantime, we encourage you to approach the passing of Mandy with your children according to your own family’s culture and beliefs.

Child Bereavement UK is a helpful website for knowing how to share this information with children.

We will be following their advice when speaking with the children here should the children broach the subject with us as individuals. Their advice is to use honest and clear language. We will answer questions honestly with them, appropriate to the children’s age and to your family’s preferred response.”

A few parents chose not to say anything to their children as they deemed them too young to understand this concept.
For those who did, staff members were able to answer their children’s questions appropriately, following the parent’s guidance. Sometimes, the children asked the same question over and over, as they processed this information over time. Keeping to the parent’s preferred responses helped staff members’ language to be consistent.

A practical matter also had to be addressed. Some parents were visibly shocked and sad when they dropped off their children in the mornings following the sent email. The manager made sure that children were greeted warmly, before ushering them into the play area to join their friends. She then led parents who were distressed into a small area away from the door where she could provide comfort and reassurance. This ensured that parents felt heard and children were protected as much as possible during those difficult days.

The apple tree commemorating Mandy will soon be planted in the nursery garden. Parents and children are invited to join staff members in remembering Mandy and paying their respects. This unifying act will be a fitting conclusion to a period of deep loss within this early years community. Life will go on. The tree will root and grow. Apple blossom will perfume the air. In time, the children will play underneath its shade.

And staff members, parents and children will all have played a meaningful part.

Helpful links:

How to talk to your preschooler about death | BabyCenter

Talking to children about death - Partnership for Children (partnershipforchildren.org.uk)

The Dos and Don’ts of Talking With a Child About Death | Psychology Today United Kingdom

About the author:

Born in Zimbabwe and raised in South Africa, Pam settled in England in 2002.
As an educator of 40 years’ experience, she has the privilege of teaching children from 2-18 years old. For the past 14 years, she has successfully managed early years settings within Brighton & Hove. Noting and understanding the unmet well-being needs of educators within the context of enormous challenges, she founded her EnRich Coaching for Educators business to offer a solution to the industry.

Her passion is coaching, and training early years educators wherever needed in the world, from The Philippines to Ethiopia.

She is a lover of beauty. Exploring new places thrills her soul, from strolling through quintessential British meadows to walking on the Great Wall of China – she sees splendour and intrigue around every corner.

Although she is not inclined to enormous outbursts of energy, she has nonetheless climbed Mt Snowdon and completed a very challenging hiking marathon on the South Downs. She has also indulged in Mongolian wrestling in Ulan Bator but that is another story entirely! Her memoirs have been published and available on Amazon here.


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