When a child is facing the death of a loved one, our first instinct is often to try to shelter them. Unfortunately, following that instinct may do more harm than good.
One of the biggest mistakes people make is waiting too long to tell a child a loved one is dying, says Andrea Warnick, a Guelph, Ont. grief counsellor with more than 20 years’ experience.
Warnick says she understands the reluctance. It is difficult to tell the children — except it is usually worse to say nothing, in part because kids will often use their imaginations to fill in the unknown details, which may be even worse than reality. And they will often blame themselves.
“It’s never too early,” Warnick insists. “You don’t need to wait for absolutes.”
You can simply say that the doctors are concerned that Mom could die, she says, by way of example. Kids need to feel that they can trust the adults in their lives to be honest with them, which is important for resilience.
“It’s better for them to find out from those who are closest to them,” she continues, adding “there’s less anxiety when they know what’s going on.”
And when children have only one parent left, it’s important they know what the plan is if the remaining parent dies.
Warnick cautions against waiting for children to bring the subject up. She says it’s the adults’ responsibility to open the conversation because children will try to protect parents by not bringing it up.
When talking to children, use clear language. “Don’t just say, Mom is sick. Call the illness or condition by its name. Avoid using euphemisms for death and dying. Don’t say we lost Grandpa or that Grandma is in your heart. “Kids can be very literal,” Warnick says.
With teenagers it can be easier to talk when they are in a car or when doing another activity such as going for a hike or doing a puzzle. “It doesn’t need to be a matter of ‘We are going to sit down and talk,’” she explains.
On the other hand, she advises against forcing children to talk. Let children take the lead on how much they want to know, she says. “Encourage them to ask questions and share concerns but let them know they are allowed to say ‘pass’ if they don’t feel like talking.”
Warnick isn’t surprised that many of us don’t know how to support someone, child or adult, who is grieving. She doesn’t mince words. “Ours is a death-denying and grief-illiterate society,” she says.
Her travels have taken her to other countries such as Botswana which have a rich story-telling culture and people freely share stories about their ancestors.
There is a misconception that you get over a death and move on, says Warnick. “We think we’re doing it wrong if it comes up again,” she says. “But this is natural… kids grieve in chunks. They will revisit it as they develop.” Children will also experience joy in between the sad times, and that’s okay too, she says.
Warnick adds that it’s okay for adults to cry in front of the children. This models a healthy grief response.
Another mistaken belief is that death ends a relationship, continues Warnick. “A child whose father has died still has a dad. Don’t try to sever the connection,” she says. Instead, children can be encouraged to participate in rituals or activities that memorialize the person who has died. For example, on the birthday of their loved one who has died, Warnick knows of one family who do “one act for the earth” in his memory because that was important to him.
Warnick attributes her own interest in helping those who are grieving to the death of her aunt when she was young. Warnick’s cousins were just children when their mother died. Once they were adults, they wanted to know more about their mom so they invited family and friends to share their memories on the 20th anniversary of her death. They were comforted by the outpouring that came from friends and family who were glad of the opportunity to remember her.
When an infant dies, people often struggle with how to best support the family. “The significance is often not recognized by society,” says Warnick, who points out that part of the grief is for the “unlived future.”
However, Warnick insists it is still possible to create meaningful rituals to express the grief, although it may require being creative. For instance, you can light a candle in memory of the child and talk about how you wish he or she was still here. “Families can nurture the relationship and hold space for the part that is not physical,” she says.
Grief is messy and involves many emotions including anger, fear, loss of confidence, shame, and guilt. It is non-linear and you don’t get over it in a few months or a year, emphasizes Warnick, who also cautions against praising children for “being strong” for holding in their emotions. This sends the wrong message to children who should feel free to express themselves.
If children cry, adults shouldn’t feel the need to fix it. “You can bear witness to their feelings by listening to them. The goal is not to fix the heartbreak. It’s to learn how to live with a broken heart.”
Strategies for supporting children who are grieving
When you want to talk to a child about a difficult subject, start by creating an appropriate space with minimal disturbances. Get on the same level as the child.
Begin by asking what the child understands. “I’m wondering what you understand about what happened…”
Ask if the child has overheard anything he/she didn’t understand. “I’m wondering if you’ve heard other people talking about any information that’s confusing to you?”
Words are powerful. Use correct terminology. Call the illness or condition by its name. Avoid euphemisms for death.
Don’t praise someone for “being strong.”
Don’t try to sever the connection with the person who died.
Encourage kids to ask questions or share worries.
Answer honestly using simple, concrete language.
Be honest when you don’t have the answer.
Explain that grief is a natural response and not a problem to be solved.
Let kids know it’s okay to feel happy and still enjoy life even when they are grieving.
Signs that more support is needed
Seek out a counsellor if there are signs of:
- Self-harming behaviour
- Suicidal thoughts
- Chronic physical symptoms
- Panic attacks
- Sleeping/eating disturbances
- Risk-taking behaviour
“Dead means that a body has stopped working and will never work again. The body cannot move, breathe, think, feel, see, smell, talk…The body does not feel pain or hunger or fear.”
“Suicide is when a person causes her or his body to stop working. The body dies.”
Warnick prefers to say that a person died from suicide rather than committed suicide.
“Cremation is when a dead body is put through very high heat causing it to break down into small pieces that look like sand/dirt.”
Grief is all the different feelings and thoughts that occur when something really difficult happens in life. It can include anger, guilt, shame, loneliness, resentment, sadness, fear, regret, etc.
Address the four Cs
Children will want to know:
Did I Cause it? Can I Catch it? Could I have Cured it? Who is going to take Care of me?
- When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown
- A Parent’s Guide to Raising Grieving Children: Rebuilding your Family after the Death of a Loved One by Phyllis R. Silverman and Madelyn Kelly
- Winston’s Wish is a U.K. website for bereaved children.
- SLAP’D is an acronym for Surviving Life After a Parent Dies. It’s a way for teens who have lost a parent to connect and share experiences.
- Kidshelpphone.ca and Kids Help Phone, 1-800-668-6868.
- Virtual Hospice, information on palliative and end-of-life care, loss and grief.
- KidsGrief.ca is a free online resource that helps parents support their children when someone in their life is dying or has died. It equips parents with the words and confidence needed to help children grieve life’s losses in healthy ways.
- Andrea Warnick’s website has links to many resources and a sign-up for a free newsletter.