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Dealing with Death in the Early Years

As Early Years professionals, death isn’t something we really consider we will need to know how to deal with as part of our role within the Early Years Sector, but it is sadly a fact of life and something that so many of us will sadly have to deal with in our careers at some point.

Whether it be the death of a parent, grandparent, loved one, close friend, or even another child; what is the best way to approach death with young children?

This was something we have had to deal with first-hand recently and this lead us to take a deeper look into the information, research and studies surrounding death and bereavement for young children, as well as drawing upon our previous experiences.

Intergenerational relationships are something we consider in high regard and visits to each of our elderly relatives form a regular part of our routines; with the children paying weekly visits to Bridgit’s parents and my great-grandmother.

These visits, in our opinion truly encompass the ‘family values’ we are keen to provide for all of our children at Pebbles Childcare, and something that so many parents comment upon within our setting, the sense of ‘family’ that the children quickly develop; with us, with each other and our wider family networks.

Sadly, in mid-February of this year, after a pleasant and exciting visit from the children, our beloved Nanny Beat sadly suffered a bad fall and was taken into hospital. Here, her condition deteriorated and she sadly passed away just over a week later.

Before informing the children of Nanny Beat’s passing, we first spoke to the parents of all of the children and made them aware of our intention to tell the children, particularly those who were involved in her fortnightly visits; we assured them that this would be handled sensitively and relevant to each of the children’s learning and development.

We decided to try and keep our explanations as simple as possible for the children and avoid all connotations of common phrases used to explain death such as ‘gone to sleep,’ ‘gone to visit the stars,’ ‘with the clouds now’, etc as we believe, and research also confirms, that this can lead children to become confused and not only begin to associate ‘going to sleep’ with dying, which can cause problems at bedtimes and for them emotionally,  but also ‘gone to visit the stars’ etc implies that the person will be coming back and it is important that children understand that this person won’t be coming back in order for them to understand the true meaning of ‘death.’

Whilst it may seem harsh to put it ‘bluntly’ to the children, we felt this was best for the children in our care in order to accommodate their level of understanding and to ensure we did not make an already sensitive topic, even more confusing for them.

We also made a conscious effort to not make too big of a fuss of the news for the children and decided to tell them during an activity which would enable them to express themselves and their emotions as a coping mechanism.

As a result, we set up a ‘creation station’ activity alongside another activity and as the children all congregated to take part we told them that we had something important to tell them and explained how Nanny Beat had been poorly in hospital and that sometimes when you are as old as Nanny Beat sometimes you don’t get better, to which one of our older children replied “Did she die?” We confirmed that she had indeed died and proceeded to explain to the other children what exactly ‘dying’ meant – putting it quite simply that it meant that she wasn’t going to come back and we couldn’t see her anymore.

We felt it important to mention at this point the feelings the children may experience as a result of this news and expressed that it is okay to feel sad, because it is a sad time, that they can talk to us and each other about her and how we will all miss her.

The children seemed to absorb this information with very little further comment and so we moved onto the activity; we had already decided at this point to close the business as a mark of respect to Nanny Beat on the day of her funeral and so we told the children if they wanted to they could create a picture to be displayed at Nanny Beat’s funeral (explaining that this is somewhere people go to say goodbye.)

The children all seemed keen to do this, with one child even commenting “We can’t use green, Nanny Beat doesn’t like green,” and the green materials were swiftly removed!

We feel it is important that children are not ‘forced’ to talk about events like this until they are ready, as we all know children all process things at varying rates and such a big and confusing event like death is no different and so we wait for the children to talk about Nanny Beat and encourage them to do so; talking positively about the fun we had, reminisce on memories whilst also checking their understanding of what has happened and their ongoing expectations and emotions.

It took around two weeks for some of the children to fully accept that Nanny Beat is gone, and whilst they had mentioned her in passing a few times after we had informed them of her passing, it was around a fortnight later where they asked to go and see her again.

At this point, we ensured we used the same terminology again and re-iterated to the children that sadly Nanny Beat was gone and we couldn’t see her any more, at this point one of the children became increasingly upset and declared that they missed her and wanted to see her – this is why we had also developed a long term plan to support the children emotionally with coming to terms with the reality of death.

Maintaining and keeping a routine is just as important for children as it is adults, particularly after something as significant as death and as a result, we were keen for the children’s routine surrounding Nanny Beat’s visits not to alter too much for them and so we decided to continue with our visits, instead visiting my Grandad John (who was frequently present at our visits to Nanny Beat’s.) This has proved a great success for the children and they have adapted to this small change seamlessly and this provides them with an opportunity to still develop intergenerational relationships, whilst also having a safe place to talk about and remember Nanny Beat within too.

Similarly, we have created a book for the children full of photos of their visits to Nanny Beat that they can access at any time and take a quiet moment to sit and look at the photos and talk about their memories of Nanny Beat.

Thus far, the children have coped remarkably well with this news – for some this is the first death they have ever experienced and so we were keen to do right by the children whilst also being mindful of their parent’s wishes too and we feel we have done that justice and the children’s emotional wellbeing and intelligence following this event is testament to this.

Find further support for helping children through different types of trauma on our spotlight. You can also buy our 'Supporting children through trauma' bundle, which is FREE to members. 

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