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BLOG: Explaining death and bereavement to children

Experiencing the Covid-19 pandemic over the past two years has meant that many difficult conversations have been brought closer to home, including how to explain death and dying to children. Whether a child in your setting has lost parents, grandparents or someone else close to them, raising the topic of death and dying with children is difficult. Since children often continue to attend their early years childcare setting or school during a time of grieving, this task can sometimes partly fall to non-family members.

Children may regularly approach their nursery practitioner, childminder nanny or  teacher with their struggles or questions, simply because they see them on a day-to-day basis and build up close relationships with them. Children may also find comfort in speaking to someone they feel close to who doesn’t seem to be emotionally affected by the death.

Crawford Pollock, managing director at Memorials of Distinction, explains how, as a childcare practitioner, you can approach the topic of death and dying with young children.

What’s the best way to educate a child about death and dying?

While every child processes death differently, there are some common strategies that can be helpful in supporting a bereaved child. Using child-friendly media, such as books and videos will help to engage them. Choose ones that show death as a natural part of life.

If the child’s family has any faiths or specific beliefs the child is familiar with, you can use them as a framework. This will only work well, however, if you can relate to such beliefs, because you’ll have to employ plenty of compassion in your discussions with the child.

Teresa Mack, advanced grief recovery specialist and former nursery nurse, says: “Working with the parents is paramount when working as a nursery nurse. The best way is to have a little chat in the morning when the parents or carers drop the child off, or in the evening, when they pick them up.”

How do you inform other children that a child is experiencing bereavement?

The first step, of course, should be consulting the bereaved child’s parents, establishing how much they want to be shared with those outside their family.

If you can, it’s preferable to let other children know one of their peers is going through a bereavement, holding honest but careful conversations. Then other children can provide support and simultaneously learn about a central part of the human experience.

Teresa  has this advice: “One way of broaching the subject is using story books and feeling cards. We could ask the parents to bring in a picture of the person who has died and talk about them. It’s also worth asking the other children if they’ve had someone in their family, or a pet who has died and is not there anymore.”

Dr Marianne Trent, clinical psychologist and creator of Good Thinking Psychology, adds: “There’s a wonderful episode of Bing Bunny with a butterfly that gets squished. It gently teaches about death being permanent. Children can often relate to this. Rather than single out particular children, it can be useful to watch something like this and then ask children to explore how to look after someone feeling sad about somebody or something who has died.”

Choosing the right words to explain death to a child

It is advisable to steer clear of euphemisms, which can confuse children. Describing death as ‘going to sleep’, for instance, can even leave them scared of bedtime.

Gently using factual terms such as ‘died’ is often more effective, but this should, of course, be agreed upon with parents or guardians. You could state that their loved one’s heart stopped beating, for example.

Dr Marianne Trent says: “If someone has died of cancer or a heart attack then I would use those terms and then break them down into concepts that the child understands. Basically, all of us die because our hearts stop pumping and then our brain doesn’t get enough oxygen, so if you’re lost for words, you can just stick to those very basic facts.”

Teresa adds: “I would respect the parents’ customs, as well as gently pointing out that we wouldn’t use language that could be misunderstood by other children, such as ‘Grandpa has gone upstairs’. It’s absolutely fine to ask questions whilst sitting with the child and playing, or answering questions the child might come up with during play. We might use craft activities to make a special gift or something else to remember the person by.”

Why might children discuss bereavement with those outside their family?

Children can become very close to their childcare practitioner and feel just as able to confide in them as they do their family members. When there’s a death in the family, the child’s parents and/or siblings might be struggling with their own grief and could be less emotionally available than usual. Funeral arrangements can also be time-consuming.

Teresa  explains: “Children will have a lot of unanswered questions about death in their heads when someone dies, even if they seem OK with it. They are curious by nature, so they won’t think that a question about death is any more or less appropriate than asking a question about having a baby. They don’t judge and if they want to know something and trust the person, they’ll just ask.”

When a child in your care experiences bereavement, open dialogue with their parents or guardians is crucial. As much as possible, be honest with the child and other children. And remember that, just like it is in adults, grieving and sadness is natural.

Dr Marianne Trent says: “Simply listen with kindness and compassion and answer their questions as sensitively as you can. Don’t be hard on yourself if they start crying: you haven’t made them cry, the situation has. Besides, crying is important for processing and also for human connection.”

How can childcare providers handle a situation where a child isn’t talking about their feelings?

Every child is different and some children experiencing loss may choose not to talk about it. If this is the case, it's important to be vigilant and continue to check-in. A child that visually seems to be coping, may be struggling internally. Checking in does not have to be constant or overwhelming but an occasional discussion using simple, child-friendly language, may encourage a child to open up. While they may not want to discuss their feelings at childcare, it's important to let children know that they can talk if need be.

As mentioned, explaining death and dying to children is not an easy conversation to have but, at some point, may be necessary. Hopefully with the above tips, childcare practitioners can feel confident in approaching the subject and helping children to process their feelings during a difficult time.

Additional Resources

PACEY’s Bereavement Practice Guide

Bereavement Story Stacks

Spotlight on: Supporting Children Through Trauma

MyPACEY Resources: Emotional Wellbeing

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