Saying goodbye: how to speak to your child about death

Discussing a loss in the family with children can be emotionally and physically challenging, especially if that loss is a baby.

Instinctively, we want to protect those around us, sheltering our children from the horrors and incomprehensible losses of the world.  However, avoiding the subject can be more damaging than you may realise.

By discussing the loss of a baby, you can encourage your child to share their worries, open up with their thoughts and concerns; provide valuable advice and information and give them reassurance that you are there for them in times of need.

Children are more acute and tuned in to a change in environment and their surroundings then we may think, even a sibling that seems too young to understand what has happened will notice a change in the environment and their parents’ moods. Knowing that their parents are stressed can have a negative effect for any child’s development. As a parent, you know your child better than anyone, and while your instinct may be to protect them from the difficult feelings, the best thing you can do is openly talk about the loss.

Although, it may feel like you do not have all the answers, or that by talking about the loss is hard for yourself never mind a child, having that conversation with your child will have a positive impact on the whole family.  By avoiding the conversation; your child will automatically pick up on your body language and the strained environment, which can ultimately, cause them more stress and worry.

There is no ‘right’ way in discussing your loss with your child but fundamentally, it is important to listen to your instincts and use what you know about your child’s level understanding and coping strategies.   Through any loss, children need reassurance that you are there for them and by encouraging them to be honest with their thoughts, provides an opportunity to re-establish a connection that is long-lasting.

Here are few suggestions when talking to your child:

  • Be honest: Try to tell your child of the loss as soon as you are able to. You are the best person to deliver this news to your child; knowing how to respond to their worries and emotions and convey in a language they understand.
  • Use clear and specific language: Children can get easily confused by phrases like “passed away” and “gone”. It is best to use the word “dead”, or something that is clear and unambiguous. Children are much more acute to death than you may realise, through films, books and even the radio. Once you have decided on the word you are going to use, do not confuse things by introducing other words for death. Make sure that people that come in contact with your child are aware of the words that you have chosen to use.
  • Don’t fight emotion: It is important for children to see that it is okay to cry. Accept the natural emotions as they come to you, and explain what you are feeling to the child “I am crying because I am sad. I am sad because … has died”. Try to avoid telling your child how they should feel or will feel in the future. Instead, advise them that they may feel a range of emotions and may want to be alone or talk to someone about their feelings. Let them know that either approach is fine.
  • Brace yourself for unexpected questions: We may make assumptions, but it is impossible to be certain what a child’s understanding of death and how they feel about it. TV shows, video games and playground conversations often shape their understanding in unrealistic ways. Encourage them to ask questions, at any time. Answer the questions as best as you can, and when you don’t know the answer, tell them the truth.

Coping with a loss of the family, especially a baby, can be emotionally and physically exhausting and can create a tidal wave of emotions.  Although, our instinctive reaction is to shelter our children from hearing about such tragedies, they respond better to honesty and often, seek reassurance that they are loved and cared for.  Try to talk to your child using information and language that is comprehensible to their development level and encourage them to be open with their emotions.

If you would like more information on coping with a loss of a baby and how to talk to your child then here is a list of useful resources, which may help you in this time of need:

Information resources:

https://www.sands.org.uk/

http://www.barnardos.org.uk/child_bereavement_booklet_explaining_death.pdf

http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/bereavement/Pages/children-bereavement.aspx

Support helplines for children:

Child Bereavement UK – 0800 028 8840 Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm, or email support@childbereavement.org

Hope Again – 0808 808 1677 Monday to Friday, 9.30am to 5pm, or email hopeagain@cruse.org.uk

Winston’s Wish – 0808 802 0021 Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm

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