Talking to children about death and grief

Talking to children about death and grief

Grief is often described as an emotional response to loss; but grief is not a simple response. It can evoke a complex amalgam of powerful emotions such as sadness, anger, guilt, or regret. These emotions can be so overwhelming that they often translate into a physiological response, such as headaches, stomach aches, changes in sleep and/or eating patterns, among others.

Starting to talk about death and grief

This situation brings to the forefront two important factors that need to be considered going forward:

Understanding how children process grief and death

Developmentally, children process death and grief differently at different ages. A five-year-old cannot comprehend concepts of a soul or afterlife and believes the dead person will come back. A seven-year-old might begin to understand that death is permanent and can develop an extreme fear of death and of other adults dying. By the time a child is nine years old, they understand the permanence of death more clearly and are very curious about death and the body, and may ask questions if given a chance.

With varying levels of understanding of death among children comes different behavioural reactions. A five-year-old may display regressive behaviours such as bed-wetting or thumb sucking. On the other hand, a nine-year-old may be riddled with guilt and blame themselves for the death, which manifests in exaggerated fears or clinging to adults in their lives. Very few adults are aware of these manifestations of distress that children exhibit. Often adults may react to aggressive behaviours displayed by the child by punishing them—not understanding that the child is simply trying to make sense of their disrupted life and the absence of a loved one. Most adults are fearful of death, and they assume that exposing children to death or having honest conversations will traumatise them.

For children, the experience of death and grief has many dimensions. It is an emotional, intellectual, as well as a spiritual experience. Emotionally they struggle with overwhelming emotions such as fear and guilt, but at the same time, they try to make sense of death. Intellectually, they try to understand the fact that their loved one is not coming back and what that means—they try to figure out where the person has gone. Since religion plays such a large role in death, the rituals and the process of laying the dead to rest makes death a spiritual experience for children. They try to find their own spiritual meaning.

It is important for adults to understand children’s responses and provide them with the space to ask questions, express their feelings, and talk about their fears. Families, teachers, and health professionals could play a crucial role if they understood how to talk to children about their experiences. Programmes in schools that equip children with social-emotional learning skills or emotional resilience skills should incorporate conversations around death and grief. Children do know more about death than we think. They see it on TV or experience it when pets die. We can talk to them about death by referring to the phenomenon as seen in nature or on TV, taking their developmental age into consideration.

Creating awareness among adults
Alongside understanding how children process grief and bereavement, it is crucial that adults—including medical professionals and mental health service providers—are equipped to have these conversations. In many high-income countries, grief and bereavement counselling are part of regular counselling training; it is not uncommon to have bereavement support services that people reach out to when they find it difficult to deal with loss.

Autism and Grief: What to Do and How to Prepare

All parents dread the day they have to explain death to their kids. Grief and loss are difficult for anyone to experience, much less young children. Parents of kids with autism may be even more worried about how to help them cope. Although this conversation will never be easy, there are things you can do to help prepare your child. How do you tell an autistic child about death?

People on the autism spectrum often have a hard time grasping abstract concepts, so it’s important to be as clear as possible.

Here are some tips:

Don’t use euphemisms

Expressions like “he went to sleep,” “he passed away,” “he went to Heaven,” and “we lost him” can be confusing to a child with autism. Most autistic people tend to interpret language literally, so your child might wonder why he/she can’t visit Heaven, become scared of going to sleep, or just not understand what’s happened.

Explain what death is

Depending on how old your son or daughter is, he/she might not have any concept of death. Use simple, honest words when talking about it. Tell him/her that death is the end of life, and it happens to all living things. Make it clear that death is permanent, but that you’ll always have the memories of that person. You could use examples from nature or fictional media to make it concrete. Explain how the person died

An (age-appropriate) explanation of what causes death is essential to your child’s understanding. You might say that the person was old enough to die, that he/she became very sick, or he/she got hurt very badly and the doctors couldn’t help.

Just be sure to differentiate between a typical illness or injury and a life-threatening one. A child might be scared if he/she thinks that a cold or scraped knee is enough to cause death.

Be open to questions

Your kid with autism might have a lot of questions, like whether he/she will die, whether you will die, and what happens to someone when he/she dies. Many children ask the same questions over and over while processing information, so be patient. Be honest in your responses and don’t be afraid to admit when you’re unsure about something.

Both autistic and neurotypical children may not understand the concept right away, so think of learning about loss as a process rather than a singular moment. It could take weeks or months for your child to fully understand what’s happened. Prepare your child if you know the death is coming

Some deaths are sudden, but other times, a friend or relative has been sick for a while. Don’t wait until he/she has passed away to talk to your child. For one thing, your […]

How To Continue Raising Your Kids Happily After Divorce

Raising happy kids is one of the most difficult experiences that separated couples face. How do you assure your kids that they are loved and that they are not to blame for the divorce? Besides, the psychological trauma that kids face during and after divorce leaves them in worry and fear that their remaining parent might walk out on them too.

As two separate studies show, 20% of children whose parents separated do not do well in school, social situations and they are at a higher risk of depression and other health issues. But there is a silver lining on how divorce may affect your kids. The studies also show that 80% of children of divorce adjust well, and their grades, social life, and emotional health do not suffer permanent damaging effects.

The difference between the two outcomes? Children thrive when their parents are cooperating and getting along with each other.

According to Parents, what hurts kids is the conflict that comes with divorce, and not really the divorce itself.

So, how can you continue raising your kids happily after divorce?

Explain The Divorce To Your Children

Your kids need to know about your separation in a clear and age-appropriate way as stated by Today’s Parent. They also need to know that they are not to blame and that they still have a family. This is an important task that you may need to repeat over and over again while keeping yourself open for more discussion.

Doing this will help assure your kids that they are not to blame, whenever they fall prey to such feelings during moments when they are dealing with anxiety or are feeling vulnerable. Your kids will also know that they can talk to you whenever they feel like talking.

Never Fight In Front Of Your Kids

Your kids do not need to be caught in between your conflict after a divorce. Granted, there will be times when you need someone to confide in, especially when you are grieving after the divorce.

Seek professional counsel so you can have someone to talk to, and particularly one that will guide you through the grieving process. Life is tough enough for your kids who have to live in two houses and spend time away from one parent as they visit the other. It is not the time to release bottled-up sentiments in a setting that will hurt your children.

Along with that, consider keeping your exchanges with your ex to a minimum if the two of you cannot still bear the sight of each other.

Allow Your Kids To Grieve & Respect Their Boundaries

Grief also happens to kids when a marriage ends. It is the normal emotional response after a penetrating life change, as Divorce Mag explains. Your kids will go through denial and fury before they come to terms with the separation and finally accept it.

How to support children through grief and bereavement

How to support children through grief and bereavement

When it comes to casual conversation, death understandably very rarely comes up as a subject that we jump at the chance of openly discussing.

Yet, it appears the coronavirus pandemic has made us all more aware of our own mortality and the mortality of those around us. Research by Dying Matters , a campaign group working to create an open culture around death and dying, found that nearly a quarter of UK adults (24%) say that the pandemic has made them more likely to have casual conversations with family and friends about preferences around their death.

While adults are potentially seeing the pandemic as a way to be more open about death , be that from coronavirus or other illnesses, one group is continually overlooked: children. Figures from Child Bereavement UK show that a child loses a parent every 22 minutes in the UK, equating to around 111 children being bereaved of a parent every single day.

During the pandemic and beyond, children have not just lost parents; they are also having to deal with grandparents, family friends, teachers and even siblings dying. Campaign groups and charities are working to help identify bereaved children and offer them the support they need, whether the bereavement is due to coronavirus or any other type of illness or injury. It’s now becoming apparent that we need a shift in public discourse, education systems and possibly even legislation in order to help bereaved children feel acknowledged and safe.

The current situation

The Childhood Bereavement Network analyses data from sources like the Office for National Statistics and uses its own research to estimate that 1 in 29 five to 16-year-olds has been bereaved of a parent or sibling – equating to a child in every average school class. “Unfortunately, there are no official figures on how many children are bereaved of a parent,” says Di Stubbs, a bereavement practitioner for charity Winston’s Wish . “A study has shown that 78% of children in the UK say they have experienced a ‘significant bereavement,’ showing that our children are very aware and affected by the mortality of those around them.”

Charities like Winston’s Wish were seeing many children before the pandemic to help support them through bereavements, alongside working with adults who know bereaved children to offer advice on how to best help young people during periods of grief. While children were facing countless bereavements before coronavirus, the pandemic has undoubtedly exacerbated the situation. “COVID emphasised our natural assumptions,” says Di. “The children we work with fall into many different groups. We are dealing with children who have been bereaved due to coronavirus. We are also dealing with children who have experienced a loved one die due to other reasons over lockdown, as the same amount of people are still dying from health conditions like heart attacks and strokes.”

What a Children’s Book Taught Me (and My Students) About Grief

What a Children’s Book Taught Me (and My Students) About Grief

I had been a mental health counselor for many years when my younger son died by suicide at age 16 in 2018. Before that happened, I had often steered clear of grief work. I stayed in the “safer” zones of anxiety and self-esteem. Throughout my tenure working with students in grades four to nine, I taught a wide variety of social-emotional skill-building classes—even substance abuse and suicide prevention—but I skimmed the surface. Loss and grief were…too heavy, depressing, unwieldy.

When I look back now, I see myself as afraid. I tiptoed around the counseling landmines of death and trauma. I felt honored and privileged to explore others’ pain, but did so with clinical detachment and a dedication to problem-solving (“Let’s fix this!”). Naiveté led the way. I thought, despite the overwhelming statistics about traumatic loss, that my family would be immune to tragedy.

I didn’t educate myself more fully until I was faced with my own grief head-on and it was shocking, profound, debilitating. When I was deep in my sorrow—I’ll always carry a portion of it with me—I became a student again.

I returned to the enormous notebook from the GGSC’s Summer Institute for Educators , reapplying the lessons about resilience, gratitude, and mindfulness to myself. I amped up my meditation practice with Headspace. I absorbed video classes for professionals on depression, post-traumatic growth, and trauma and the body. I went to therapy, sought out therapeutic massage, and found grief yoga; I read books and websites about loss, grief, and hope. I used my jewelry workshop, collage, and paints to create art and reframe my guilt and hurt. I stared at trees, rode my bike, climbed mountains, and watched the sunsets from the comfort of my patio, surrounded by my well-tended gardens. The list goes on.

All these practices taught me a lot about grief. I learned that if I wanted a post-traumatic growth story of my own, I needed to shift the question from “Why?” to “What?”: What now ? What next ? What for ? I could not bring my son back, but I could work to develop a mental health screening form to be incorporated with all the other back-to-school paperwork families needed to complete for the following school year. I could make my experience accessible to students, offering small group social-emotional sessions where I answered their questions about my son’s death and the loss honestly, openly, and in developmentally appropriately ways in those initial months. I continued to teach and counsel with this new lens, sharing strategies for carrying grief and trauma with students and staff.

Despite all that knowledge and effort, I still felt exhausted and self-critical. The daily work of helping current students and their families navigate crises was overwhelming, while trying to come to grips with the times I’d missed opportunities for deeper work with former students and missed the signs of my son’s struggles. I decided to step away from school counseling and gave my notice to the school in January 2020.

A healing story