To commemorate Dying Matters awareness week (10-16th May 2021),  Rachel Leech, children and young people’s counsellor (left) and Lorna Barrett, family support worker (right), have written a blog on how to talk to children about death, dying and bereavement.

So often, the first question asked by our patients and families when they’re diagnosed with a life-limiting illness or they are nearing the end of their life is – “What do well tell the children”? Followed by a series of thoughts which include:

  • I don’t want them to worry
  • They shouldn’t have to hear this
  • They are too young to understand
  • I can’t my head around this, how can they?
  • I want to protect my children and their innocence
  • I don’t want to hurt them or make things worse

There is a natural, fear-based need to protect children and young people from upset. Dying Matters encourages us all to talk about death. That conversation includes children and young people who are often naturally inquisitive about life and death.

Lorna explained: ‘A recent visit to the cemetery with my five-year old grandson to a family grave provoked the discussion about my own death in which he concluded: “You can’t die because there isn’t enough space for more words on that headstone.”

‘Comical, BUT the important thing was the conversation about death and dying.

‘In my own childhood, I experienced the sudden and tragic death of a much-loved older brother. Aged ten, my parents and the many protective, loving adults around me thought is best to NOT tell me of the circumstances surrounding his death and I was not aware of his funeral taking place. Nor was there discussion about his loss for many, many years into my adult life.

‘What I needed was the truth, to be included, to contribute to the shared grief and loss. The word DEAD not to be used in place of the whispers and euphemisms of the adults around me.’

We need to talk to the children – knowing what is going on can reduce anxiety

  • It gives children and young people permission to talk, ask questions, say how they feel and talk openly to you
  •  It makes sense of the tears and the upset around them
  •  It can help them cope better with difficult situations in life

The effects of not talking:

  • Can leave children and young people frightened and confused
  • Alone with their worries with no one to talk to
  • Imagining something worse than the reality
  • Misunderstanding and misinformation can lead to a lack of trust

Children are more able to deal with stressful situations when they are given the truth and support to deal with it. Some things that can help with talking and help to build resilience:

Create a worry jar/box – Family members draw or write their worries, questions, and fears, put them in the jar/box and open them together. You can explore together if they are shared worries, if you have answers to questions, or if you don’t know. It’s OK to not know something. It’s good to share your own worries (in an age appropriate way) in the jar/box. This models to children healthy open discussions and shared emotions.

Create a soothe box or emotional first aid kit – You can do this collectively as a family. You may put pictures in the box, blankets, messages and notes. Inspiring comments. Ideas to motivate or soothe. Fidget toys, tactile objects. Each family member may have their own soothe box that way you can explore and celebrate everyone’s own individual soothing/emotional first aid needs.

Muddles, Puddles and Sunshine – This is a fantastic interactive book created by Winston’s wish all about capturing memories and thoughts when someone special has died. Children tend to puddle jump with grief and difficulties. One moment being deep in the puddle of upset and worry and the next jumping out and playing happily. View online here.

Don’t always rely on words with children – Their brains are still developing and their understanding of illness and death may be very different to yours. I often use more creative ways to explore emotions and thoughts such as if your thought or feeling was a colour what would it be? What texture would it be? Where does it live in your body? Can you doodle/draw it? What colour/texture do you need when this is around? For more information on children’s understanding of death you can visit Child bereavement UK.

Some fantastic books:

  • The Huge Bag of Worries by  by Virginia Ironside – a great book for any age showing how it’s good to share worries. See here.
  • Starving the Anxiety Gremlin by Kate Collins-Donnelly – a book that I return to again and again for children and young people to help with anxiety. They have different books for different ages. I like the 5-9 age book for simple exercises and explanations. See here.
  • Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie – a book suitable for young children introducing lifespans and death without any religious connotations. I had this book on my children’s book shelves from when they were very young. See here.
  • The Secret C by Julie A. Stokes – a book for children and young people about cancer that is straight talking and easy to understand. See here.
  • Sad Isn’t Bad, a good-grief book by Michaelene Mundy – see here.

Let’s get this conversation started!