Experiencing a death of a loved one is possibly the hardest trauma a child might have to experience; made even harder by the fact that you will most likely be managing your own shock and distress. Allow yourself time to process your own feelings and to prepare yourself as much as is possible; practise how you will talk to them and think about the kind of questions they may have. You know your children best, so it is important to trust your instincts. Though it is advisable to have someone with you so you can share the talking if one of you becomes overwhelmed.
An initial conversation with children:
Although you may be telling children of different ages it is best to initially talk to them together if possible
At this time all children, even tweens, will need information to be expressed gradually and in clear language
Let them know that this conversation is a starting point and that they can ask questions and talk to you whenever they need to
Choose a time when they will be able to be alone or do their own thing afterwards. Often children will go back to watching TV or playing which can feel strange but is normal
The start of the weekend is often appropriate, but just before going out or bedtime is best avoided
Be honest, in an age appropriate way. Being vague may lead to fears that you are hiding something even worse
Expect different responses, children can react very differently, sometimes even appearing as if they are not that upset. An emotional response can come hours or even days later
They may have many questions or none at all and it is fine to say that you don’t have all the answers.
After this initial conversation, children will begin to process what is happening. Sometimes their focus will be on what it means for them and at others their concerns will switch to the family and their loved one. Be aware that children may be particularly alert to adult conversations and may overhear things that they do not fully understand, leading them to fill in the gaps with their own imagination. Regularly checking in with your child about what they think is going on and how they are feeling will let them know that you are OK to talk about it. Often children are reluctant to mention ‘it’ thinking they will upset or remind people. Now is an important time for teachers and other care givers to be made aware of what is happening and what your child has been told. Children should know who you have told and it may be appropriate to ask tweens who they would like to know at their school.
Some things to let them know as you continue the conversation:
That it is not anybody’s fault and there is nothing they or anyone else could have done differently to change what is happening
That there is no right or wrong way to feel, everybody is feeling lots of different things all at once. No two people grieve in the same way.
There are lots of transitions at this age, including moving schools. There might be other changes including moving home.
If there are going to be any immediate changes to their routines, such as who takes them to school, be open about this as children may feel awkward about asking how it is going to affect them.
As you navigate through the immense challenges of supporting your children it can become increasingly relevant to keep age and development in mind. Younger children respond well to being given jobs to help such as getting things or tidying. Where appropriate, older children may benefit from being a part of some discussions with health professionals, helping them to feel less shut out. If your child’s main carer or home will change, they need to know you are thinking about this, even if you are not exactly sure what will happen.
Whatever their age, never assume they know who will look after them and where they will live. Most families have their own belief systems about what happens to us all after we die but may not have discussed this before. This may be the time to think about what you want communicated to your child so that there is consistency. In our experience phrases such as ‘gone to sleep’ and ‘gone to a better place’ are confusing for children, often leading to feelings of abandonment and sleep problems.
Naturally children mature differently, but the following is a general guide:
Tweens have a more realistic understanding of death. They may still experience irrational thoughts around how they might have caused the illness or can somehow change what will happen
They will most likely be characteristically unpredictable and volatile in their responses. Some may feel that they need to spend every minute with the person whilst others may distance themselves in a way that can feel hurtful and rejecting
Hormones and changes in their bodies might make them feel emotional
Friends will be important for consolation
They at this age will have experience or the understanding of the context of loss
There is a chance they might become anxious, insecure and fearful
Be sure to remember there is no right or wrong, tweens mature in different ways and grief and mourning is a very individual process. Always keep lines of communication open and be willing to have those difficult, sometimes awkward honest conversations. You know your child best. Look for appropriate support and use your networks, no one should grieve on thier own.
Sources of support
The Grief Encounter helpline, grieftalk can be contacted from 9am – 9pm Monday to Friday. The grieftalk helpline number is 0808 802 0111, or you can chat online or even email us now, we are here to listen. See our website www.griefencounter.org.uk for advice, training and how to refer.
Lost for Words: Advice for Children About How to Deal with Grief – aims to help young people through grief. is made up of quotes, advice and corresponding emojis crowd-sourced exclusively from children bereaved from birth to late teenage years. This book was conceived and edited by Benjamin Brooks-Dutton; author of the Sunday Times Bestseller It’s Not Raining, Daddy, It’s Happy; and award winning Life as a Widower blogger.
Author: Stacey Hart is a therapist, trainer, university lecturer and group facilitator. An expert on childhood bereavement, family breakdown; she is head of trauma and training Manager at Children’s bereavement charity ‘Grief Encounter’.