If you are concerned about discussing death with your children, you're not alone; it is not a subject we all want to talk about on the school run. However at some point, children will ask about dying. We know they require honest answers, but it can be very difficult to know the best way to talk about the subject. I have put together some different approaches to consider when talking to your children about the different types of death and grief.
Death in the family
A death in the family that affects everyone and it can be difficult to stay strong for your children when you are struggling yourself. However, it is important to remember that it is ok for you to be upset and for your child to see you upset.
Try not to use euphemisms such as 'passed away' or 'lost', as these words can be confusing and scary to little ears. Be honest, and discuss death and dying in open terms. We encourage children and their families to speak openly about how they feel when they are in the hospice, so they don't see it as something that cannot be acknowledged or talked about.
If you are faced with a situation where a child has the option to view a dead relative and you don't know what to do, try to make sure you are comfortable with how the dead person looks and give the child the option, it is not obligatory, they may want to remember the person alive. My nephew Henry did see my father when he had died. His grandfather was dressed in his normal clothes in a 'normal' room on a bed and smelt the same way he always has. This helped five-year-old Henry to feel comfortable enough to take his grandpa's watch off and retain it for himself. Late on that evening, we had fish and chips and champagne, a combination that makes me think even now of a difficult time with a smile.
Death of a child
No death is easy, but the death of a child is very, very hard to bear. Explaining to a child that they are going to die, or that a sibling is going to die is the ultimate unenviable undertaking and incredibly difficult. But love, a sense of control and normality can help more than people imagine. Always let your child know just how loved they are and that it is OK to be angry. Let them scream, shout, cry and be mad at the world. We also encourage parents to let young people know that it's OK to have fun, to laugh and play and do normal children things. A life-limiting illness doesn't have to be a limit in itself. One of the young people who visits the hospice said during an interview, 'I know I am going to have a short life, but I am going to have a good life' - showing the most admirable spirit.
Death in the news
Death in the news can be hard to explain as, more often than not, it's traumatic and you can't always filter the images children see. I personally found it hard when my daughters saw the footage of the recent Paris attacks, as the images were incredibly upsetting and it was difficult to explain why people were getting hurt.
Again, in this situation, I think it is best to be honest that people have died. To avoid them watching more footage I would say that people have been badly hurt and that seeing them injured could be frightening for them. Explain that those who are hurt are now at the hospital and getting the best care possible.
Death of a pet
Children love and grow very close to their pets - they are companions, best friends and family members. Unfortunately, the time will come when the pet dies and your child will be faced with what may be their first experience of death. Gentle honesty and inclusion is crucial in these situations - children are more robust than we think, and it is very often best to tell them the truth.
Being involved with conversations about the pet's health and even seeing a pet who has died, although difficult, can help children understand death and its potential for peace. Don't look to replace the animal overnight, as this can confuse the child and more often than not, they will notice different scales on a goldfish, or a spot on a rabbit. This can lead to all kinds of unanswerable questions, and can add feelings of mistrust and deception on top of grief. Leaving the vets with just our black Labrador's lead and two crying daughters was a horrible moment, one that I can't forget, but it was fundamental in the processing of what was happening. He was poorly and therefore had to be put down.
The anguish felt by a child over the death of a pet can be underestimated by adults. To help your child process their suffering, you can consider doing something to help celebrate the pet's life. Encourage your children to draw a picture, or write a list of all their favourite memories with the animal. You could hold a mini funeral for the pet in the garden, as this will help the children to say goodbye, and will give them a special place to visit when they are feeling sad.
Other things to remember...
Whether the person who has died is someone in the family or a friend make sure your child has the chance to ask questions and to speak about their fears and needs. It may be that they have wishes or questions that you don't know about and that you can help with.
Try to keep a normal rhythm to life - usual breakfast times, homework and after-school clubs to attend. Life may never be the same again and there may be some changes, but this will hopefully become part of the new kind of acceptable normal. Do try to keep children involved in what is going on, don't discount them from conversations, and answer their questions honestly. Make sure you, the family and nominated friends have an agreed approach and give the same information, to avoid any confusion.
Children will discuss death anytime, anywhere, so be prepared to have a conversation out of the blue. It is also good to let other people know how you have talked to your child about death as conversations are unlikely to be limited to parents and it is helpful that the messaging is the same - be it with friends, grandparents or neighbours.
Don't be afraid to ask for help. There are dedicated support charities such as Child Bereavement UK and Winston's Wish, who specialise in child bereavement. You could contact your local children's hospice, where specialist support teams will be able to help. There are also a wealth of good books and resources available, which may be helpful to read if you are preparing for a death that may affect your child.