Long before we realise it, children become aware of death. They see dead insects and birds. They hear about it in stories and they see it in television.
But although death is the one certainty in life, many parents hesitate to talk about it with their children.
Child bereavement charities believe we should take a much more proactive approach. "By introducing the subject in a safe and non-threatening way, we can help prevent misconceptions and any misguided fears and perhaps most importantly, we can help prepare children for when death does affect their lives," says Ann Rowland, director of bereavement services at Child Bereavement UK.
Indeed, research shows that children who have some understanding and emotional literacy around death do better in terms of long-term resilience when death does affect their lives.
So how exactly should we talk about death to our children? And how different should our explanations be according to their age?
"Even very young babies will notice the impact of someone not being there," says Rowland. "So whilst they won't understand death and they clearly won't understand any language around it, they will in a very sensory way notice that someone is missing - that they are not hearing a voice or not being held, for example."
This makes it particularly important for everything else to remain the same in the life of a baby affected by death, particularly any routines they are used to, she says.
"Children under two will also be affected by the emotional state of other important people in their lives," points out a spokesperson for the charity Winston's Wish.
Around the age of three, children begin to understand the very basic difference between being "dead" and "alive" and they will start to use these words. They might, for instance, say, "Granny is dead." But then they might say, "Is Granny coming to my birthday?"
This, according to Winston's Wish, is because they don't understand the permanence of death. "They think death is reversible and that people who have died can come back."
Many pre-schoolers ask the same questions over and over again in an effort to make sense of a loss, says Noelle Adames, clinical services manager at the Grief Encounter Project. "But it's important to answer the question each time and let them process it at their own pace."
It is at this age that most children love nothing more than to find a dead bird or worm. As adults, we tend to look in horror and pull them away. "But these are great opportunities to talk about death and dying and its permanence in a very-non personal way and with no negative consequence," says Rowland.
"They might ask, for example, how the bird will eat and breathe and you can explain that death means you don't feel any more or get hungry."
Keep your language simple, clear and direct, says Annie Broadbent, author of We Need To Talk About Grief.
"In trying to protect children from death with the very best intentions, it actually causes greater anxiety because children are literal and may well worry that if they 'go to sleep', they won't wake up or that Granddad really is 'lost'."
Be mindful that children of this age often think it was something they said or did that caused a person in their lives to die. "The flip side of this thinking is that they can believe their words, actions or thoughts can bring the dead person back. They need to be reassured repeatedly that the death was not their fault," says the Winston's Wish spokesperson.
Around the age of five to seven, children will begin to understand that if someone dies, that is non-reversible. "In fact, if children have been bereaved when they are younger, they will grieve again around this age because they realise Granddad is not here now and that they will never see him again," says Rowland.
"Parents can get very worried about this, thinking something is wrong with their child, but this second episode of grief is very natural."
This is the age when, if a pet such as a goldfish or hamster dies, parents are often quick to replace them. "But actually, it is better to talk about how sadly it got old and died and use the experience as a very natural way of introducing them to the experience of death," says Rowland.
"It doesn't take away the pain of bereavement when someone in their life does die, but we do know that it can help with their resilience and ability to express themselves when it happens."
In this age range, it's not uncommon for children to think of death as something spooky, like a zombie or spirit that comes to get you, according to Winston's Wish. "It is important that their specific worries are spoken about, that they share any dreams and are told that what they're feeling is normal," says the spokesperson for the charity.
The principles are the same as with younger primary school age children, in that kids need honest and clear information about death, with parents making it clear that kids can ask any questions anytime.
The difference now is that your language can be more advanced and they may ask more difficult questions, such as, "Exactly how did Aunty die?" or "What is suicide?"
It's important not to shy away from honesty, says Rowland, who points out that there is plenty of guidance online around explaining difficult concepts like suicide and what happens to a dead body.
The most important thing is to be led by your child's questions. "If a child asks the question, generally they are ready to hear the answer," explains Rowland, who adds that if children of this age often take time to digest what you've said, then later come back to you and ask you more.
Children now not only have a full understanding of death, but they are also able to relate it to the future. So they understand that they whilst they won't just miss someone in the here and now, but in the future too.
"Also by this age, children have given some thought to the fact that death doesn't just happen to other people, but that it will happen to them one day too," says Rowland.
"This may lead to anxiety about friends or siblings dying or about their own health. They may need gentle reassurance that, for instance, their headache has come on because they haven't drunk enough water, not because they are going to die."
Children who face grief at this time in their lives are often told, "You're being so brave." Be warned children interpret this as you wanting them not to share their feelings, according to Winston's Wish.
The death of someone when a child is this age can leave them feeling destabilised and unsafe, points out a spokesperson for the charity.
"Big emotional releases, such as anger or distress, are not uncommon at this age," she adds. "This can be scary for children. They will benefit from your willingness to listen and your assurances that the feelings are normal."
These are the identity forming years when hormones are all over the place and young people find it hardest to express their emotions. So there's nothing to be gained from pushing conversations about death.
But it is important that they are reminded they can still talk to you about it, should they want to, or that if they would prefer to speak to someone else, you'll help them find peers or other trusted adults to support them.
If the teenager was bereaved in the past, their grief will resurface at this point. "In this case, your reassurances will be particularly important," says Rowland.
Whether a teenager does re-grieve someone who died some time ago, or freshly grieving someone who dies during their teen years, it's important to remember that kids of this age group don't like to be different.
"It can therefore be useful for them to be put in touch with other young people who have had similar experiences. In fact, we've developed an app on our website exactly for this and there are other charities that have forums specifically for teenagers. That sense that they're not alone or different can be crucial," says Rowland.
Also be mindful that teenagers often prefer to talk about any direct experiences of bereavement to someone outside the family. "Make sure they know there are people there for them, perhaps via pastoral care in school.
"Many young people tell us that they don't want to talk to parents about family deaths because they know it will upset them, so they keep their feelings to themselves, but it's much healthier for them to talk to someone," says Rowland.
Adolescents often struggle with the "meaning of life" at this age, pondering on the question, "What's the point?" especially if they're trying to make sense of the death of someone close.
Breaking the news of the death of a loved one to a young person
- Remember that each child will respond differently.
- Some children who suddenly find themselves surrounded by family and friends after news that a loved one has died can take joy from having so many loving people in their lives and therefore do not fully understand the impact of death.
- Children of all ages may mask their emotions or might not know how to cope with new feelings that they experience when someone they know has died. It is important to create a safe environment for them during this difficult time.
- Let the child know you are also feeling sad but are there for them. And create a space to talk about memories.
- It's critical to inform the child of the sequence of events that will follow after a death so that they know what to expect and why people are behaving in a manner which is usually unknown to them.
Aman Girdhare is a social worker who works for the Armed Forces charity SSAFA, where she facilities supports groups of bereaved military families and leads a workshop for bereaved young people.
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