How to help your child understand bereavement

Talking about bereavement is never easy but this subject is even harder to approach when children are involved. However, it’s important they understand what happens should someone die.

They may be asking about this sensitive topic if a loved one has passed away or the family pet has moved on. Here are some simple ways to approach this subject carefully, to ensure they aren’t upset and that they understand what it means.

Be honest

It’s easy to tell children softer versions of what has really happened but it’s important you are completely honest. Use the words death and dead – these are words they likely understand and have used before. It may be tempting to say that someone has ‘gone away’ or ‘gone to sleep’ but these phrases can confuse little ones. Help them understand what death means. Try to avoid making it sound like the person could come back, children need to understand that it is final.

Use examples they’ll understand

Kids movies deal with the subject of death regularly and you may have already brushed on the subject while watching these with your children. If you feel it may help your child better understand use an example like Mufasa in the Lion King or Elsa’s parents in Frozen to give them a relatable character to hold on to and compare themselves with. It could give them strength.

Let them know their feelings are valid

Encourage them to let you know how they are feeling and comfort them if they are upset. If they need space, give it to them. Children feel the same way as adults when confronted with a bereavement so it’s important you allow them to grieve in the same way you would.

Explain how someone has died clearly

Children can blame themselves for a death if they do not completely understand how it happened. For example, they may have been told off for being too noisy around an ill member of the family and if they died not long after blame themselves for the death. Ensure you take the time to break down exactly what happened and reassure them that they have done nothing wrong.

Teach them that death happens to everyone but usually when they are old

If a loved one dies, children can become scared that those around them will die too. It’s important they understand that death is natural but that it usually happens when people are very old.

Talk them through what will happen if there is a funeral

Funerals can be daunting for children and can leave them feeling scared if they see all the grown ups around them upset. Tell them why we have funerals – to say goodbye to those we love and take time to remember all that they brought into our lives. Let them play a role if they would like to, such as laying flowers. Discuss what you are arranging if you are planning the funeral yourself and share your list of tasks with them. Let your child decide if they want to attend or not, if they don’t then arrange for them to stay with a trusted adult – such as the parent of one of their friends.

How to help your child understand bereavement

Discuss spiritual or religious beliefs if they ask about them

Your child may be discovering their own thoughts and feelings towards religion, so it’s a good idea to wait until they ask about this aspect of death before approaching it. If you are religious, you can talk about what you believe happens and let them come to their own conclusions. You may believe talking about Heaven or God could comfort them but if they have not yet come to terms with the concept of religion it could confuse them further.

If you feel like you need support after the death of a loved one, talk to an expert about your situation. There are a number of charities ready to lend an ear or a service such as Beyond who can offer practical assistance and advice, as well as a free will writing service or funeral finance to help when someone you love has died.

7 ways to help your child understand bereavement


in collaboration with Chelsea Ellsworth

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