In the UK alone twenty-two people die every day leaving their children to be raised by either one or no parents. Multiply this by the number of days in the year and it reveals a very large number of children and young people who are left in a bereaved situation.
How do we protect our children, help them to cope if they are ever unfortunate enough to find themselves in this situation?
- On a practical level it's important that they are protected financially and emotionally as much as possible. Ensure that you have an up-to-date will with financial provision made for your children. Discuss what you want to happen to your children in the event of your death. It may be a tough, difficult and unpleasant conversation but it's important that you've discussed and noted where they will live and with whom in case one or both parents were to die, say in an accident.
- Children need to learn about the different experiences they will meet throughout their lives and death is no exception. With allowances for their age, allow them to be involved in the death of a pet. Children can find preparing their dead goldfish or hamster for burial surprisingly therapeutic; encourage them to find a suitable box for the coffin, select a burial site in the garden, maybe find a poem or a few words to say, even visit the grave afterwards. It can be a comforting experience for a child.
- Elderly relatives dying can be an important part of a child's education. Learning that old people die is often accepted quite readily by children. Death can seem a distant, abstract concept to them, especially in regard to older people. They do however, sometimes find it hard to accept that they will then never see the loved grandparent again. They may understand that 'they've gone to heaven' but then expect them to come and visit in time for tea. Being patient and providing reassurance that their grandparent is fine, happy, okay but no longer around can often help children to eventually settle.
- It's important to agree as a family how much you tell your children when someone close has died. This information needs to be consistent, especially in the sad event of one of their young school friend's dying. Religion and faith may be a part of what you choose to say, but it's also important to provide some space for your children to grieve and come to terms with their loss in their own way.
- Children are incredibly sensitive to atmosphere and will often keep quiet and not talk about their feelings or reveal the depth of their loss and distress if they're afraid of adding to their grieving parent(s) anguish. Allow the opportunity for children to talk about the deceased friend, parent or relative, perhaps have photographs on display, comforting rituals on certain important days. Encourage reminiscences, memories and conversations about the deceased person as a natural part of your daily conversation if so desired.
- It may be that Sunday has become a difficult part of the week because mother is no longer there to cook the weekly family roast. As a consequence, Sunday can become a day that everyone dreads. It may be that some family members hermit away in their rooms and eat a sandwich, but is that really the best way to recover from her death? Why not introduce new routines where perhaps everyone joins in to make the Sunday meal together and learns to laugh at the first disastrous attempts?
- Start a family discussion and lead by telling the children what you consider to be the best way for you all to move on. Explain that it's okay to be upset at times but that you're all in this together, there for each other and that everyone is allowed to express how they feel. Some children don't want to talk at all about painful subjects. Instead, they may find it therapeutic to keep a private journal or draw pictures about their family, documenting their feelings, the things that are on their mind. If they're able to join a group with children who are in the same situation as themselves that can be particularly supportive and healing.
- A pet can be an especially comforting solution for a distressed, grieving child. Having a young animal companion to look after, care for, talk to, confide in, maybe sleep with often helps bring a child out of their grieving state and come to terms with what's happened. Other children may find comfort from talking with a trusted family friend, neighbour, close relative or even a counsellor. Finding an outlet that brings comfort is an important part of the healing process.
- Be sure to reassure children about the family situation after the death of a parent. Some children worry dreadfully about money and question if there is enough to pay the bills, worry about the remaining parent and whether they are alright, worry about going to school and leaving their parent at home. Try to demonstrate that you are well, coping, missing the person who's gone but are picking up the pieces as well as you can.