Explaining death to a grieving child can be heartbreaking and difficult. Kate Silverton explains how best to broach the subject and then support them through loss
Bereavement charities like Child Bereavement UK say children grieve in much the same way as adults. They learn how to mourn by copying the responses of the adults around them but without adult support, we may see them move into a life of searching, longing and yearning.
I interviewed a Canadian writer recently for BBC Radio 4’s obituary programme, The Last Word. She was paying tribute to a man whom she said had been like a “father figure” after her own father died when she was young.
She said she’d spent decades experiencing a deep sense of loss and “longing” for the father she’d never had. And as a result it had affected all her relationships as she sought to recreate that father/daughter relationship.
Her words were powerful testimony to the impact bereavement can have on a child. So when a child loses someone close to them, how best to address their grief? How might we spot the signs that they are not coping and decide what support we can provide?
“At times there will be nothing we can do for our child except to sit with them and let them experience their grief,” says clinical psychologist Dr Laura Markham. She warns, however, if we are ourselves uncomfortable with dealing with loss, we give a destructive message that is far-reaching.
“Accepting loss as a normal part of life is important for optimal mental health for all of us. The more we allow ourselves to grieve, the more joy we can also feel,” she adds.
Children have a limited ability to put feelings and thoughts into words and tend therefore to ‘act out’ with behaviours rather than express them verbally. Therapists talk about creating a safe ‘holding environment’ whereby we acknowledge the upset; verbalise what it is a child might be feeling and then provide physical comfort, thus creating a secure space for them to be able to let go.
When my father was suddenly diagnosed with stage four lung, liver and bone cancer in June 2015, our family was clearly devastated. With two very young children at the time I instinctively wanted to shield them from the inevitable grief and upset that would follow.
The fear of being abandoned prompts a deep and innate fear in children, as they know that without a parent around they will not likely survive. If someone dies it may prompt them to worry about those closest to them leaving too. I sought advice from Dr Markham, who advised a simple approach.
“We can explain that grandpa/daddy/a friend has become ill. We can explain that usually our bodies are very good at getting better but sometimes they don’t work so well, and sometimes they stop working,” she says.
Current advice warns against saying that person has gone to ‘sleep’ or has ‘gone away’ as a child can develop fears themselves about going to sleep – and if they feel someone has just left them it can create separation anxiety.
I explained to my children that granddad did not want to leave us but it was part of the natural cycle of life and that most people live for a very long time before they die.
I explained it was a very sad time, and when we are sad we cry, and that was normal. I said we should tell my father how much we loved him. I explained that love does not die and that we should remember all the fun and lovely things we did with him.
However, when a child loses a parent, the loss is commensurate, and neuroscientist Dr Jaak Panksepp and child psychotherapist Dr Margot Sunderland warn that just because a child appears to be coping well, it is not always the case.
“To an adult who associates grief with being introverted and depressed, a child’s high level of activity seems to indicate a lack of grief. Then, like a plane flying into sudden turbulence, the child moves into bursts of heartbreaking crying.”
A year after my father’s death, I read my daughter one of Dr Sunderland’s books, The Day the Sea Went Out and Never Came Back which is aimed at helping children cope with loss. Just a few pages in to what appears to be quite an innocent story, my daughter was clearly and deeply moved. She sobbed uncontrollably for minutes and all I could do was hold her and gently tell her to let it out.
My daughter’s tears gave us another opportunity to discuss what it means when people leave us. I realised for her there was still a fear that I might leave too – so as a parent these opportunities are good to take, even if your child seems unaffected, it does not always mean they are adjusting well.
We do our children great service by explaining that loss is natural and it does not mean they have done anything wrong. Children can internalise grief and blame themselves in a way that would seem illogical to us as adults – but the key to remember is that nothing they say should be dismissed as silly or irrelevant. We just need to hear them, to tell them everything they feel is normal and that their feelings are valid.
Kate Silverton is a broadcaster and journalist with a BSc degree in child developmental psychology. She is now studying child psychotherapy part time, and is mother to two children.