Losing a loved one at any time is hard for a child to understand and process, my boys Grandma (my mum) died suddenly and unexpectedly on Christmas Day when they were 4 and 5. My children are the most important people in my life and helping them deal with the death of a loved one was my number one priority.
Apart from Mr Smudge, our cat dying, my children’s only experience of Death had been the devastating loss of my Niece’s little boy L, who died at six months old. We have always been honest with the boys and they understood that my Dad (Grandpa B) was dead and being a farmer’s grandsons they understood life cycles pretty well too. But none of this prepared me or them for the death of my Mum, their Grandma. So how do you help children with the death of a loved one?
How to Help children cope with death
I believe that as a society we need to normalise death and remove the fear. It is also key to take the key from your child (as their parent you know them best) and children of different ages will deal with death and bereavement in their own way. Also what works for one might not for another. Also, I would advise getting professional help and guidance in certain circumstances such as death by suicide, especially for family members.
A lot will depend onyour child’s age and you have to take that into consideration. Children will deal with the death of their grandparents differently to how a parental death. They might suffer from irritability or distress and have guilt that they are not the one that has died. It is so important to normalise this as a grief reaction. They also may withdraw from things that made them happy. It is OK for a short while but in the long term, familiar routines will help kids. Younger children such as toddlers and preschoolers might not even have a concept of death.
There isn’t a one size fits all solution.
I believe in modelling behaviours and I have never been afraid to let the boys see my emotions including grief and sadness. They both were even aware that after my mum died I suffered from depression and had counselling.
To talk about Heaven or not?
Personally, this is a big no, no for me, especially for young children as for them Heaven is a physical place. When my best friend’s husband died we knew that his youngest thought heaven was a place (a bit like Cornwall) and it was somewhere to visit. However, other people talked about Daddy being in heaven and it really confused him and his understanding of death. He wanted to go there and see his Dad. He thought it was somewhere he could come back from, he thought it was reversible. This is why it is important to be clear so there is no misunderstanding.
Explain what is going to Happen
We need to explain to our children what is happening and going to happen next. You could even provide a schedule. Explain what is going to happen at the funeral and ask if they want to be part of it (this is especially key for older children who may want to be part of a memorial service). Talk about the coffin or casket, weather it is going to be a burial or a cremation. Often they will imagine things that are much worse than what is actually going to happen.
These rituals provide comfort to children as much as adults and are part of the grieving process.
We made the decision with advice to inform my friends children about their fathers death in groups with the older children being told first and then being there to support their younger siblings is required.
Make a memory Box
The NHS suggests making a memory box containing things that are important or will remind the child of the person who has died (or is going to die). Macmillan has a great page about making a memory box if you are going to die, but it is also good to make one after the even if it was sudden or unexpected and it might include photos, some favourite music, letters, or a recorded message. When my Dad died we put a piece of his jewellery in for each of the boys to give them when they left school.
I like the idea of jewellery made from a person’s ashes like these from https://www.asheswithart.co.uk as a keepsake.
Other Helpful Tips
The fact that Mum’s death was such a shock has really hit Maxi hard and he didn’t want to discuss his feelings openly with us. He started to have nightmares, so my wonderful friend Wendy bought both the boys a set of worry dolls. We also popped a crystal under Maxi’s pillow and discussed how it might not stop the bad dreams but would help him to control them. We also made a dream catcher too. You have to remember that Maxi was at preschool and very young and he really couldn’t work out the difference between reality and play at times.
We asked the boys what they could like to put in Grandma’s coffin and they both chose a photo and drew her a picture. We also had some superb advice from Angela at Tracing Rainbows, about explaining that mums body no longer felt anything, a bit like a cocoon or hair or nails and to reinforce this with the boys we each cut off some of our hair and popped it in a box and buried it. We didn’t want the children to be upset or worried that Grandma would be hurting.
Angela also wrote both the boys a wonderful letter, which I would like to share with you:
I wanted to write you a letter to say how much I have been thinking of your family in the past few days. It must have been a very strange time for you – partly celebrating all the Christmassy stuff, and partly being very sad because you have lost your Grandma. I know you have both been really good boys, and so helpful to your Mum when she has felt especially sad.
It is a long time ago since my big daughters were little girls and they lost their Gran. It was hard because I kept crying when they didn’t expect it, and sometimes they wanted to play and I was a bit grumpy. But we had lots of cuddles and lots of happy memories. I think it is a good idea if you feel sad to get a little book and write things down or draw some pictures – some of the things you remember about the good times.
I expect some people will tell you to be very brave because your Gran would want you to keep on with your life, and enjoying things – and that is true. But never forget, there are times when it is OK to not feel brave, and to need a cry and a cuddle. And that is true however old you are.
I wrote to you last Easter, and I believe that Easter is when we remember that Jesus said “Death is beaten forever and when we die we can live in Heaven and be happy forever”
Your Gran’s body was old and tired and not working very well – one of my children reminded me when their Gran died that now she would have a new body and would be able to dance in Heaven. The Bible says there is a big party going on up there – do you think all the Grans are dancing together and giggling about the silly things we are doing? I hope so.
Your Mum is my friend and I would like to come and hug her but we live miles away – so will you please give her a big hug from me? You are in my prayers – lots and lots of love Angela
There is nothing wrong in really out for further help especially if your child is experiencing severe problems, physical symptoms (headaches and such) or suffering from anxiety. Their mental health is key and we are not taught how to help our children cope with death. Perhaps you know a death is coming due to illness and want to put interventions in place now in advance. Often palliative care will be able to point in the advice of health care providers, resources and support groups to meet your child needs and support the grieving process. It is quite common for bereaved children who experience the death of a parent to be worry that their surviving parent is going to die too
- Child Bereavement UK – call 0800 028 8840 Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm, or mail email@example.com
- Cruse Bereavement Care – call 0808 808 1677 Monday and Friday, 9.30am to 5pm, and Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday 9.30am to 8pm, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
- Grief Encounter – call 0808 802 0111 Monday to Friday, 9am to 9pm, or email email@example.com
- Hope Again – call 0808 808 1677 Monday to Friday, 9.30am to 5pm, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
- Winston’s Wish – call 0808 802 0021 Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm, or email email@example.com
You can also find out more about children and bereavement from the Childhood Bereavement Network
Books about Death for Children
We bought some great books as recommended to us by people on Twitter and on my post about mum’s death.
Michael Rosen’s Sad Book
This book is just perfect in every way, not too many words and the ones that are there are just spot on. A beautiful book suitable for all ages.
I wasn’t as sure about this book, mainly as it was about replacing a lost family pet, but Mini really loved it and responded by saying “Do you think that Grandma is looking down at us?”
“Small look at the stars – how they shine and glow, but some of those stars died a long time ago.
Still they shine in the evening skies, Love, like starlight never dies”
This is a great book all about unconditional love and it had me in tears. It is perfectly positioned for both the boys. Yes it is a picture book, with rhyming words, but the sentiment it gives out is wonderful.
This is a great book which talks about how different things and animals have difference lifetimes, it is very repetitive and therefore, super for younger children. We were sent this book by a follow blogger and I am so grateful for it. It talks about beginnings and endings with lifetimes in between. A lovely book.
What a beautiful and informative post.
I totally agree that children need to be involved in the process as much as possible (with some limits). When a child is feeling emotional pain, and won’t talk about it, a little knowledge can help to relieve a lot of their concerns.
When my mum died a few years back, it left my 8yo daughter with only one grandparent (one that lives very far away). My daughter was very close to my mother and she was grief-stricken at losing her.
As part of a much larger process, we said that grandma was one of the stars she sees in the sky at night….looking down on her. My daughter found great comfort in this simple idea.
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Makes me all teary just reading this post – Jen – I think you did WONDERFULLY with your boys. What a fabulous set of things to help both you and the children deal with the loss of your mother. I hope there will remain now happy memories and less sadness.
Thank you for sharing these great tips (though I hope not to have to use them for quite some time!)
A great informative post! Sometimes adults are that wrapped up in their own grief that they forget how the children are feeling.
Yours boys are very lucky indeed x
I love Angela’s letter. That must mean so much to you and the boys. I remember that my mum wrote to her friend’s eldest daughter when her friend was diagnosed with breat cancer and I thought at the time what a special and thoughtful thing it was to do.
I like the way that you are reinforcing that she can no longer feel pain and so on – I think that is really important, otherwise the whole concept of death is so scary (it’s still pretty scary but it does help to know that the person can’t feel anything). Your analogy to before the boys were born is so clever. well done. Juliex
I think you have done amazingly well not only coping with your loss but helping the boys so much through it. Not only will it help them now but for the rest of their life. My Grandad died when I was 11 and I’ve often thought back to how my parents were with me then when I’ve lost other family members since then.
An amazing post, lovely, thoughtful ideas to help others in the same situation.
As I read this, I kept thinking, “What about you?” What have you read to help you to cope and understand. My mother died back in Oct. It wasn’t unexpected. It actually was a relief since she had been in such bad shape for so long. Also, my husband’s mother died last April. Even though, it was unexpected, she was elderly and had Alzheimer’s and had broken her hip. So, whereas, our mother’s lives had been lived out, your mother couldn’t have been very old. And to have her die so suddenly and on Christmas must have been very hard on you. I understand that your boys are your main concern, as my girls were when they were small and something bad happened, but you must take time for yourself. You must reflect upon your memories. The thing that has helped me the most is while going through Mother’s belongings, having memories come flooding back. It helped me remember all the wonderful times we had, and all the great and selfless things she did for others. I would venture a guess that while helping your boys understand what has occurred, it has helped you, too. Perhaps they have even brought comfort to you. But, you must remember that it is ok if you cry. That is what I’ve had the hardest time with. I will tear up so unexpectedly and in places and situations where it has been awkward. Bless you and your family.
@julia reedy: I do understand that I need support too and MadDad is being my rock. I am not sure that for me it has sunk in yet. Mum was only 67 years old, so it had been very unexpected and I feel pretty numb still. I think the boys are the best medicine I could have and I am trying to focus on the positives of everyday life and I am sure there will come a time when I crumble, but not yet. Thank you for your wonderful and concerning comments.
So sad. Sounds like you are doing a great job with the kids, and that’s probably helping you at the moment, but yes, you must make sure you help yourself too.
Jen, these are such good, thoughtful ideas. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.
This is such a great post. I just recently lost my cousin and due to circumstances it was not easy to cope or deal with it. You seem to be going strong. Great ways to help your children.
Sounds like you did exactly the right thing to help your children through this very difficult time. Some lovely books there and what a lovely letter from your friend. Love the idea of the chinese lantern. Would your boys like to plant a tree in Grandma’s memory??
Hugs…and yes, of course I’ll send some wine your way 😉
@jazzygal: Oh the wine would be well appreicated. I used to plan a tree in a sustainable forrest on the anniversary of my dad’s death. So we are going to do the same for mum too, great idea. I am not keen on flowers as they die, but we are also going to plan a rose in the garden.
What a wonderful letter from Angela. And what a sensitive and beautiful way you are approaching this all ; it must be so, so hard to come to terms with. Do take care of yourself as well though won’t you?
I’m sure this post will help people who may be searching for ways to help their own children deal with a bereavement.
@Deer Baby: MadDad is taking great care of me. I do not want death to become a taboo subject for the boys. I would hate for them to feel that they couldn’t talk about it. I means a lot that you think this is a good way to approach it having experienced a death as a child.
I am sorry to read about the loss of your mum. Many people would not have the strength to openly chat to their children in the way you have and I think it is admirable the way you have begun to help them grieve in a positive way, if there is such a thing. Best wishes to you and your family.
@Karen: Thank you for taking the time to comment. I think in helping the boys I have been helping myself too
Hi Jen, it’s very touching that you have taken the time and trouble to help others at a time when your heart is breaking. People will find solace and comfort in your post. I have purposefully not been in touch with you about some stuff as I needed to be satisfied that you were “ready” to be contacted iyswim, now you have posted these beautiful messages, I know I can contact you so I will! Thank you for sharing the post on Got Your Hands Full, as you can imagine, and having said I hoped it would help someone, to see you recommed it to help others having experienced what you have in recent weeks helps me understand what blogging can be all about. Lots of love to you both and your boys. x
@Linda: Thank you for the comment, your post was of great help. Blogging has been a great way for me to process my feelings these last weeks, it is great how people come out nad help you when you ask for it, such a great community of people. Feel free to contact me at any time.
Sounds like you did a great job with the boys at a time when you must have been in so much pain! I’m sure that a lot of people will this information really helpful….I know that I will as Chick has so far been lucky enough not to have to deal with an losses. Sending you all hugs xx
Thanks for sharing Jen, you sound as if you are doing an amazing job for your boys. I suppose I must be realistic and know that one day this will be my kids too.
Your friend Angela seems like an angel.
@Michelle Twin Mum: She really is amazing. It was such a nice gesture for the boys to have something specifically for them.
Upon reading about your recent loss I wanted to also send you a hug and say that I’m so sorry for all the pain that you and your family have had of late. These things are never easy to talk about but I’m believer that we do all need to talk about them whether to grieve if facing loss or as an outsider to learn how to cope with the crazy things can life throw at us. You are an inspiration and a strong woman, an example to us all.
@Tanya (Bump2Basics): Thank you for your lovely comment and will take all the hugs I can get.
I am so glad the letter helped – you and the family remain in my prayers. I am glad you are able to be open about your grief- I am sure it is a help to many others . Blessings xx
@Angela Almond: Thank you for all your support, you have been great Ang. I think the blog helps me a lot
I’m very sorry for your loss, you are in my prayers.
@Abigail: Thank you very much for you kind comment
You have dealt with all apects of this so well Jen. This is such a useful post. No doubt it will help so many people who will one day have to face that reality too. xx
Jen that is such a lovely, moving & informative post. I hope people who are in need of such advice stumble upon your blog as it’s as helpful as anything I’ve ever read. It sounds like you took care of those boys so well. I hope you got some care too. After all you lost your mum. Take care and go on that spa day if you need it. Relaxation and laughter have got to be the best cures.
Thank you so much for sharing this on our website. This must have been a tough time for you and this post is so touching and honest. As my father died at Christmas too I know that this can mean that there is a tinge of sadness each year, but from what you have written I can only assume that that tinge is accepted and acknowledged but that you can also move past it. Well done and thank you once again for sharing. (Ruth from More than a Mum)
Thanks Jen. Thanks so so much XX
Thanks for sharing this with me Jen. I’m going to write her a letter to keep and we have some chinese lanterns, so I think that would help her too. x
Sian » I hope it helps. Losing anyone, even a pet is hard. But it is an experience that we are all going to go though at some point and if handled well, sets our children up for life
Thanks for highlighting this post to me on Twitter. It has been very helpful reading about your experience. My daughter has been asking me a lot of questions about dying and the body and the funeral. Some questions are a lot harder to answer than others but honesty is so important. Thanks again and hugs x