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Supporting Children with Death & Loss


Sadly, during this difficult time it is more likely than before that children and young people will have to experience loss of a friend or loved one.

Dealing with this will be more difficult than normal, because of the uniquely cruel circumstances around the pandemic. How then, can parents best prepare their child for this?

Much of the advice in this article applies even under normal circumstances. However, it will also include some specific support for dealing with loss during the pandemic.

Talking to your child about death

Death is an unfortunate part of life. For some children, this is a particularly difficult thing for them to deal with emotionally. Children will understand death in different ways, depending on a number of factors. The most important of these is their age and stage of development. Speaking about death to a teenager is naturally very different than speaking about it with a toddler. 

The American Academy of Paediatrics breaks children’s understanding of death down into four main concepts: 

  • Irreversibility (that death is permanent); 
  • Finality (that everything the body does stops with a death); 
  • Inevitability (that death is universal for all living things); 
  • Causality (what causes death). 

 A child’s ability to understand and cope with each of these four concepts will help determine how they react overall to a death. It is therefore important for a parent supporting a child during a loss to understand generally how well they understand these concepts. A parent can help a child deal with death by explaining it in an age-appropriate manner. 

It is normal to want to shield your child from the harsh truth of a loss. It can be enormously challenging for an adult to speak about the loss of a loved one frankly especially when they are grieving themselves. However, being too vague or making use of too many euphemisms can confuse a young child. A parent should try to be sympathetic and emotionally supportive in their language. However, you should avoid giving the wrong impression about any of the four concepts of death. 

How do children grieve?

It is also important for a parent to be aware of how their child grieves. Everyone is different, and everyone processes grief in their own way. Therefore, not every child will behave in the same way. Nonetheless, there are a few things that children will likely do if grieving: 

  • Babies and toddlers: looking for the person who has died, being irritable and crying more, being anxious and wanting more attention.

 

  • Young children: Many of the same behaviours as above, as well as dreams about the person who has died, regressing in developmental progress, fearfulness.

 

  • Primary-aged children: Many of the above behaviours as well as, blaming themselves, being easily distracted, feeling embarrassed or fearful, stomach or physical issues.

 

  • Older children: Being particularly anxious about friends and family’s safety, trying to please adults more than normal, feeling very strong emotions, being very focussed on what has happened.

 

  • Teenagers: Being easily distracted, being generally unsettled and neglecting school or work, wanting to be alone or alternatively, being clingy, risk-taking behaviour to escape, pretending not to care or joking about the death. 

How can parents help?

The first thing is for younger children, try to continue normal routines as best as possible. While older children understand that a death temporarily upends life and that it will return to normal, a younger child might be fearful that everything has changed forever. Secondly, allow them to feel their emotions. Do not tell them how they must feel, and give them space to feel fear, anger or grief. Parents should step in if a child is at risk of self-harm or if they seem to be getting beyond control. Attempting to stop them from expressing their emotions can cause further issues. 

Particularly with older children, talk honestly with them about the death. If a person is likely to pass away, but has not yet done so, it may be worth speaking to the child in advance. Do not hide your own emotions from them and remember that it is okay for you to grieve as well. Explain that death is a tragic but natural part of life. For younger children, give examples like plants or animals. 

Coping with death during the pandemic 

A positive activity that can be done – depending on access during the pandemic – is to create a memory box. The NHS has a guide here to explain how to create one. Having a physical reminder of the lost loved one is a good way to deal with grief. 

During the pandemic, it is likely that there will be unique challenges. A loved one may die while you and your child are unable to see them. You may be unable to attend a funeral. There may be a higher level of bereavement than normal. Parents should not scare children, and if they ask about these circumstances reassure them that you will deal with it as best you can if it occurs. Remind them that being physically present is not more important than keeping the loved one or friend in their thoughts, and that it does not mean they loved them less. Reassure them that you can visit once this pandemic has passed, and make plans for a memorial when it is more feasible. 

Parents should remember that they are not alone if they are struggling. It is important that you seek support yourself with grief if it is needed. This can be from loved ones, friends or if applicable to you, religious or spiritual leadership. If you or your child is struggling particularly hard with a loss, there are professional and charitable organisations who can provide support. You and your child should not feel ashamed or reluctant to reach out. Parenting NI continues to provide our support line service during the crisis and can be reached on 0808 8010 722.