Dr Ulrike Nau-Debor is a Counselling Psychologist and mother of two children, aged 3, and 6. We interviewed Dr Nau-Debor on the very sensitive subject of Children & Bereavement.
Is it right to try and shield my child from death and keep them away from funerals? Should I try not to show my own emotions?
Whilst I appreciate that you want to protect your child, I don’t really think that you can successfully shield your child from death. It is part of life and they will hear about it whether you talk about death or not (just check out most of the Disney movies). Children tend to start thinking about death from quite early on (approximately 2 years) but it takes them several years to truly understand that death is permanent and that everyone will die at some point, even they themselves. That means that at times they might be scared of you or somebody else close to them dying and then it would be helpful to explain death and dying a bit more. Death is a tough concept for most of us; you could use children’s books for help. (For example, ‘When People Die‘ by Sarah Levete, ‘I Miss You‘ by Pat Thomas, ‘Farewell Grandpa Elephant’ by Isabel Abedi; to name just a few). If your child knows that he or she can talk to you about anything no matter how hard that might be, you can help them embrace life with its uncertainties and keep the communication channel open.
Shielding children from funerals may take away their opportunity to feel part of the family, to have a place to express their feelings and the chance to say goodbye to their loved one. I think it would be helpful to talk about it with your child, find out what they would like to do and how they feel about the funeral. What are you worried about that your child would experience/see at a funeral you feel would be too much for him or her to cope with?
We as parents in our desire to protect our children might try to not show them our own difficult feelings. The problem with that in my experience is that children are extremely adept at picking up on our feelings because they depend on and deeply care about us. It can therefore become quite confusing for them if they feel their parent’s sadness and despair but are told (with the best of intentions of course) that the parent is fine. If children experience this consistently then there could be an increased chance that they will start doubting their own experience/inner guidance. This can impact their confidence and the way they deal with their own feelings, wishes and needs.
It is a delicate balance how much to tell children because they are children after all. So the way you let them know what and how you are feeling is important. It is key that we as parents take responsibility for our feelings and how we look after ourselves so that our children don’t feel they have to be the strong ones, having to carry our feelings. I think key things include being honest, looking after yourself, getting the support you need, knowing that you are human and that you don’t have to do this perfectly either, and respecting and acknowledging your and their experiences.
I’m really worried about my children since their mum died three weeks ago. One minute they’re in tears, and the next they can happily play with friends. There seems to be no consistency, what should I do?
I am very sorry for your loss and the pain you are going through. I imagine that it hits you really hard emotionally when you are faced with bringing up your children on your own and having to figure out a way of managing everyday life. I appreciate that you want make sure that your children are coping with the circumstances. Three weeks is not a long time since your partner died; all of us including children might need more time than this to take in when someone close to us, like our mother, dies.
Depending on how old your children are, they may not fully understand that she really isn’t coming back; children live very much in the present moment. When they play they may be absorbed in what they are doing. Something, on the other hand, may make them suddenly think about their mum (perhaps they want to tell her what they are experiencing) and then they remember what has happened. This is why one minute they may be happy and the next in tears. Inconsistency is a normal part of the bereavement process, especially at this early time of shock. Even adults don’t tend to go through the different phases that have been identified as typical parts of the grieving process, in a neat and orderly fashion.
You may sometimes experience yourself forgetting that your partner has died. I imagine that sometimes when you first wake up in the morning, you may think everything is ‘fine’ and then you remember what happened. It takes people a while to integrate the fact that a loved one is no longer there. It will take some time to find a new balance as a family and to find your way forward.
You and your children did not only have to say good bye to her but also to the future you all imagined having together. All of you have to find a new balance as a family. This is a challenging and painful transition that you are all going through which takes time and will trigger all sorts of feelings at different times. Your children and you may sometimes get mad at her for not coming back, for leaving you in this situation. I think a helpful thing you can do is to give them space to talk or express in other ways (through their actions, play, drawings etc. – depending on their ages) their painful and sometimes conflicting feelings. Try to acknowledge their feelings and let them know that it is normal and ok to feel all the different things they experience, both positive and negative. Prepare yourself that this will take time. If your children are very young it may be useful to listen for any self-blame; young children can think that they caused an event and then it is helpful to explain to them that they didn’t cause their loss.
Your children will look at you as an example, as to how you deal with this loss. Are you validating your own feelings, are you looking after yourself as much as possible? Are you asking for help should you need it? If you acknowledge and respect your own feelings, look after yourself and ask for help, it gives them permission to do so too. It is extremely important that you have as much of the support that you need and can get. You are grieving as well and are getting used to bringing up your children on your own. This can be overwhelming at times. Maybe you can create some space for yourself so that you can recover and regain strength. We all know how tough it is to deal with strong emotions in our children when we feel depleted. Be kind to yourself. I know that this may be easier said than done but nevertheless, your well-being is vitally important for you and your children.
If you would like some specialist support you could contact Winston’s Wish, which is a leading childhood bereavement charity and a large provider of services to bereaved children, young people and their families in the UK.
You can also contact Cruse Bereavement Care which is another leading charity for bereavement care.
I wish you and your family lots of strength and that you find a way of remembering your partner and their mother that helps you all to move forward as a family.
Dr Ulrike Nau-Debor, Counselling Psychologist, AFBPsS, HPC registered, BUPA & AXA.
DISCLAIMER: The above questions are not by any means a subsitute for a consultation, please do seek help from your GP or the organisations mentioned above.