A death in the family

publication date: Apr 24, 2007

When someone you are close to dies, it is very easy for grieving adults to overlook the fact that children are affected too.

“Children need to acknowledge their feelings and be allowed to grieve,” says Jenni Thomas, Founder and President of The Child Bereavement Trust. “They need honest answers to their questions and younger children may ask the same question over and over again.”
Children under seven find it hard to comprehend death and if mum or dad dies suddenly they may worry that the remaining parent may also leave them abruptly. Kids worry about who will look after them. In these cases it is reassuring for them to keep to familiar routines.
Older children may be embarrassed by their grief. Unable to cope with their feelings they may display disruptive behaviour or suddenly start bullying. Many children are convinced that the person’s death is somehow their own fault - for instance they may have had unkind thoughts and then the person died. You have to reassure them that nothing they did caused the death.
Children have difficulty in putting their feelings into words so may need more hugs and cuddles. When someone close to them dies children often feel angry - with you, with God or with friends whose grandparent, mother or father is still alive. Alternatively they may feel they have to protect their parents and may look as though they are not grieving at all.
Sadly you can’t take the hurt away but you can help them come to terms with their loss. There is no cure or remedy for grief but it does help when someone listens. Talk about death and what it means for you as a family. If you have a particular faith it gives a framework for discussion. However even if you don’t believe in a life after death you can explain that people live on in our hearts.

Seeing the body
This very much depends on the circumstances and the individual child. Younger children probably don’t need to see the deceased but older children should be given the choice. No pressure should be put on them either way.

Obviously it might be inappropriate for very young children to attend a funeral and much depends on how you feel you would cope looking after the child as well as coping with your own grief. However going to a funeral is a rite of passage, a learning process. I feel older children should be given the choice. Many children deeply resent being excluded.

If you decide that your children should not attend, you could ask them to write a letter (if they are old enough) or draw a picture that can put be in the coffin. No one else need know what the letter says but it can bring some comfort to the grieving child to draw or write about their feelings.

Points for parents
  •  Tell your child’s playgroup, nursery or school if there’s been a death in the family.
  • Talk about the person who’s died. Maybe make up a special book or box with photos and mementos.
  • Explain that it’s ok to laugh or feel happy, it doesn’t mean they don’t love the person who died any more or that they have forgotten them.
  •  Family holidays and special times may be difficult  - you may have to do things completely differently or exactly the same depending on how you all feel.
  • Celebrate the dead person’s life on birthdays or anniversaries, perhaps visiting the grave or lighting a candle, reading a letter they once wrote or getting the children to write a poem or a few lines about how they feel.

The Child Bereavement Trust -  - has a range of resources for all age groups to help families come to terms with their loss.