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 firstname.lastname@example.org
- 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 email@example.com
- Grief Encounter – call 0808 802 0111 Monday to Friday, 9am to 9pm, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
- Hope Again – call 0808 808 1677 Monday to Friday, 9.30am to 5pm, or email email@example.com
- Winston’s Wish – call 0808 802 0021 Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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.