Telling a young child that someone has died or is dying can be incredibly difficult. Adults instinctively want to protect children from the tough things in life. Yet, with support, children can deal with the truth no matter how difficult and traumatic it is.
To make sense of what has happened children need information and explanations. These need to be honest, simple and in language that children understand.
Child Bereavement UK supports families and educates professionals when a baby or child of any age dies or is dying, or when a child is facing bereavement. Here the charity shares suggestions to help you with what to say, how much to say and when and how to say it. The important thing to remember is there is no script; go with what feels right for you and your child.
Break the news as soon as possible
The longer you leave it, the greater the likelihood your child will overhear a conversation or find out in an inappropriate way. Children are very sensitive to atmosphere and may already know that something serious has happened, but may not know what it is.
Prepare your child
Alert your child to the fact that you have something to say. For instance you could say: “I have some very sad news to tell you..” If the person has been unwell, it can be helpful to build on what your child already knows. “You know the last time we saw granny and she was unwell…”
Try to be physically close to your child and ideally find a place where you won’t be disturbed. You may want to have some sort of physical contact such as holding your child’s hand but, if your child finds physical contact uncomfortable, just sit nearby.
Keep it simple, honest and real
Use simple words that are right for your child’s age and level of understanding. Avoid euphemisms such as ‘lost’ or ‘gone to sleep’ as these can be confusing for children. Use real words such as ‘died’ or ‘dead’.
How you explain the concept of death will depend on your individual circumstances and your beliefs. A good approach is honesty combined with lots of reassurance. For example, you might say: “When somebody dies, their body stops working. A dead body does not breathe because their lungs are no longer working and the heart has stopped. A dead body cannot move. It will be very quiet and still. It cannot feel anything so there will be no pain.”
Younger children may find it hard to grasp the difference between being dead and being alive. They may need to be reassured with words along the lines of: “ Because their body is dead they do not need anything to eat or drink and they cannot feel the cold”, or “Dead people stay dead for ever; much as we might like them to, they cannot come back to life.”
If your child asks a question you find difficult, or you’re not sure how to answer, ask them what they think. This will give you an indication of what your child already knows or understands. If you’re unsure about an aspect, be honest about what you don’t know. Say that when you do find out you will tell your child.
Answer questions and be ready to repeat
If your child asks a question, it usually means they are ready to hear, or need to hear, the answer. Try to answer only the question they’ve asked and don’t add extra detail. When talking to your child, don’t overload them with details they don’t want, information can always be added at a later date if needed.
You are likely to have to repeat the information and answer further questions over subsequent days and weeks. Being asked the same question again and again can be extremely hard but this is the way young children try to make sense of what has happened.
Expect different reactions
On hearing the news, children will react differently. Some may be in extreme distress and others may look blank as if nothing had happened. Some may even giggle nervously. All reactions are normal and the way your child reacts to the news may change as time goes on.
Books can help your child understand
There are several books available online and in bookshops that can help children understand what being dead means. Child Bereavement UK’s website gives details of books to suit every age group.
Make sure you’re supported
It’s best that the news is heard from a member of the family but this can be hard to do. If you feel you can’t break the news, stay close to your child while someone else familiar explains what has happened. If you are breaking the news yourself, make sure you are supported.
Child Bereavement UK offers face-to face bereavement support service for families where a baby or child has died or where children and young people, up to the age of 25, are bereaved. The charity also supports families who are facing bereavement, where a child of any age is not expected to live, or where children and young people are facing the bereavement of anyone significant in their lives.
For information and guidance on support for you and your child when someone dies contact Child Bereavement UK’s helpline on 0800 02 888 40 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on the work of Child Bereavement UK visit www.childbereavementuk.org.