Telling a child that someone close to them has died can be an overwhelming prospect.
Following the death of a loved one it’s difficult to know how much information to tell children, and the best way to say it.
It’s natural to want to protect children from the pain of grief however it is vital that they are aware of, and involved in, the process. The first step is to prepare yourself. Make sure you have the details you need, have someone to support you and the child if preferred, then take a deep breath.
When to tell a child that someone has died
This should happen as soon as possible, ideally somewhere quiet and away from distractions. Choose a time when you are not rushed, so you can take time to go through everything, repeat as needed and answer questions. Be able to spend time with the child if and when they need you after hearing the news.
What to say
Above all, it’s essential to be completely clear and honest. Avoid softening the news with phrases such as “gone to sleep” or “passed away”. In reality these options can be frightening for children, creating a fear of going to sleep, for example. Instead use clear, simple language. For younger children small amounts of information work best. Initially, tell them that someone has died – the details can follow. Child Bereavement UK offers a great example:
“I have something very sad to tell you. Grandad has been very ill for some time, and now he has died.”
Be prepared for questions
Children usually ask questions, and this may be later rather than immediately after hearing the news. Answer honestly and keep explanations short and simple. It’s ok not to have an answer or to ask them what they think about something. (Your explanation can be based on their answer.)
Emotions and reactions
A range of emotions and reactions are involved, for adults and children. It’s best not to hide your own pain and to ensure that children know it’s ok feel emotional and to cry. They may feel sad, angry, anxious, confused, becoming clingy, irritable or having difficulty with eating, sleeping and/or concentrating. Explain that it’s ok to be sad because someone has died. It’s also ok to be sad sometimes and happy at other times after someone has died. Giving children time and trying to maintain their usual routines are important.
Remember that you are not alone in offering support to a child. Turn to relatives, friends, teachers and healthcare professionals as needed. There are also registered charities offering specialist bereavement support for children, such as Child Bereavement UK and Childhood Bereavement Network. Your local hospice may also offer a specialist service for children.
If you have queries about involving children in the funeral planning process or the funeral itself, please contact one of the friendly team at Austin’s. We are happy to offer advice based on our experience, helping you as well as any children involved.