Talking to Children About Losing a Loved One

Coping with death can be an overwhelming experience for any adult. So how do you even start to explain it to a child?

Ingrid McAllister-Derry, The Bereavement Manager & Care Liaison Officer at Southern Co-op, explains that one of the most important things is to do is make sure they are involved.

If children are excluded from bereavement on the grounds that it is too distressing for them to be told the truth, they will still pick up on the distress of the adults. This can then lead them to form an attitude towards death which they may take with them into adulthood.

Ingrid said: “Children may form the attitude may be that death is a taboo subject and not to be talked about as part of everyday conversation. The child may be poorly prepared for grief in adulthood. Or they could even feel unnecessary guilt as, in the event of a death close to them, it is common for them to believe they are at fault.

“But please don’t despair as the key is to acknowledge the shared loss and grieve together. Where possible we must mourn together, and deal honestly and gently with the child concerned.”

What happens and how to help

Children may not understand the meaning of death until they are three or four years old but they can feel the loss of close relatives in much the same way as adults – even from infancy.

Ingrid said: “It is important that a child is told as quickly as possible when there is a death in the family. The news should be broken by the person closest to them in as simple and straightforward a manner as possible.

“Try not to use too many euphemisms. For instance, ‘Grandfather’s gone on a long sleep’ as this could instil in the child a fear of sleep or they could keep wondering when he will wake up. The child should be encouraged to talk about the deceased and any questions answered briefly but truthfully.

“It is also useful to remember that young people may not speak of their grief for fear of adding extra burdens to the grown-ups around them. It is also worth asking if they could be included in the funeral arrangements which could help them grieve and mourn for their loved one much the same as it does for us as adults.”

Ingrid advises that it is not recommended to force a child to go if they do not want to attend the funeral. But if you do take a child to a funeral, then it is important to prepare them beforehand by telling them what to expect. Someone close to the child should stay with them throughout the service to comfort them when it is needed.

Questions that children might ask about death.