How do I talk to my children/teen about death or impending death?
It is very important to be honest when telling your child of the death or impending death of a loved one. Though you may want to shield them from truth, it is best to be honest about what you know or don’t know.
Some children might worry that they will also become ill, again these are normal feelings for a child to express. Out book What Does Not Ever Mean?, can help a caregiver to initiate this discussion with a child and to address common questions that children may have.
Should a child or teen be actively involved in, or even attend the funeral?
It is best for a child or teen to have a choice around attending services and how involved they want to be. It is helpful to explain how events will unfold, from planning and making arrangements to the visitations and services as well as talking to them about what to expect. If you feel your child is old enough, they could accompany you to make arrangements and choose how to honour their loved one. We suggest you provide the child age appropriate information to help them make these decisions, and then to respect their choices.
What is Suicide? Should I explain it to a child? How do I explain it to a child?
Even when the truth is difficult it is still best to be honest with age appropriate language from the beginning. For a child or teen to find out days, months, or years down the road that the cause of death was other than what they were initially told can trigger a new cycle of grieving and feelings or anger and betrayal. Suicide could be explained as a person’s brain not working right and they think awful thoughts. They hurt their own bodies in a way that makes their body die. Our book, What is Suicide Anyways?, can be a helpful resource for caregivers facing this difficult situation.
What might I expect from my grieving child? What is normal?
Children tend to grieve physically with spurts of excess energy. As well, you can expect that your child will move through their emotions quickly feeling sad one minute and happy the next. The older the child is the more “adult-like” their grief will appear. By the time they are in their mid-teens their grief may mirror adult grief.
A child/teen will often find an outlet for their grief. For some it will be music, or art, while for others it might be sports or physical activity. Encourage your child to explore a wide range of options and develop multiple coping methods.
Brain processing seems to slow down for people when they are bereaved, difficulty concentrating and/or taking in information is common for children and adults. Many caregivers become concerned when children’s grades in school show signs of a downward slide. This is a common occurrence as some children and teens may find it harder to concentrate and to sit and be still and find school and studying to be more challenging.
Some children and teens may withdraw from their normal activities and spend more time alone, while some may embrace social activities and spend more time with friends.
Some children and even teens will begin to experience some form of separation anxiety following the death of someone close to them. It may be due to the sudden reality that something bad has happened and something bad might happen again to someone else they love.
Should I share my grief with my child or teen?
Children learn to grieve by observing how others model the behavior for them. We often find that parents don’t want to cry in front of their children because they don’t want to upset them and then the child will not cry in front of the parent because they don’t want to upset them, so it creates a vicious circle of protection with no one expressing how they really feel.
It is okay for your child to see you cry, they will then know that it is okay for them to cry in front of you as well. They will learn to open up, discuss their feelings and honour their loved one by the examples set for them. If possible, foster an environment where they can openly express themselves without feeling judged or censored. It is also important to keep in mind that children tend to be more physical and less verbal in their grief. One possible way to remain open with them would be to join them in activity, and without forcing conversation, be open to any questions that they ask. When children do open up and discuss their grief it will often be in short bursts; they will engage you in a brief discussion and then continue to play or even change the subject rapidly.
How do I offer support to a friend or family member who is grieving?
Do not assume that another person’s experience of grief and their response to it is the same as yours. You cannot take away the pain of the person who is grieving but there are many ways that you can be of support. For a child it can be through play, reading a book, painting a picture, or going for a walk. For a teen or adult one of the greatest things you can do is allow them to talk freely. It is often helpful allowing the bereaved individual to tell their story. Do not offer advice or judgement. It is important for the bereaved person to feel your support. There are no words that will lessen or fix the pain.
What to say when supporting someone through grief:
- How are you feeling?
- I don’t know what to say, but I can listen if you want to talk
- We don’t have to talk, we can just sit here
- What can I do for you?
- I imagine this might be very painful for you
- I’m sorry that you have to go through this and I’m here for you
- Go ahead and talk/cry, it’s okay, I don’t need you to be strong for me
- I don’t know how you feel, I have had someone close to me die so I have perhaps had similar feelings
- It sounds like you are… (sad/scared/angry/frustrated/overwhelmed)
What not to say to a grieving or bereaved person:
- I understand
- I know how you feel
- They wouldn’t have wanted you to cry or be sad
- Be strong for… (your mother, father, brother, children etc.)
- Get on with your life/Get over it/Stop feeling sorry for yourself
Where can I find resources and support?
We welcome your phone calls and email inquiries. If the Centre’s groups are at their maximum we will provide helpful resources until a position becomes available. The following are also helpful resources:
- The Dougy Centre (centre for grieving children) www.dougy.org
- Winston’s Wish (centre for grieving children) www.winstonswish.org.uk
- Canadian Virtual Hospice www.virtualhospice.ca
- Grief Works BC (website for grieving kids and teens) www.griefworks.com
- Association for Death Education and Counseling www.adec.org
Books for Children:
- Brown, L.K. (1996). When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death
- Goldman, L. (2005). Children Also Grieve: Talking About Death & Healing
- Hanson, Warren. The Next Place
- Kennedy, Joan & Dianne Dekkers (2012). What Does Not Ever Mean?
- Kennedy, Joan & Christy Hamill (2011). What is Suicide Anyways?
- MacArthur, H.C. Henry and Harriet
- Mellonie, B. & Robert Ingpen (1983). Lifetimes: A Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children
- Mellonie, B. & Robert Ingpen. Lifetimes
- Paterson, Katherine. Bridge to Terabithia
- Peterkin, Allan M.D. What About Me? When Brothers and Sisters Get Sick
- Viorst, Judith. The Tenth Good Thing About Barney
- Varley, Susan. Badger’s Parting Gifts
Books for Teens:
- Chalifour, Francis (2005). After.
- Gootman, Marilyn E. (2005). When a Friend Dies
- Grollman, Earl & Max Malikow (1999). Living When a Young Friend Commits Suicide
- Kuklin, Susan (1994). After a Suicide: Young People Speak Up
Books for Adults Living/Dealing with Grieving Children and Teens:
- Buscaglia, Leo. The Fall of Freddie the Leaf
- Coloroso, Barbara (1999). Parenting through Crisis
- Fitzgerald, Helen. The Grieving Child (A Parent’s Guide)
- Johnson, Joy. Keys to Helping Children Deal with Death & Grief
- McCue & Bonn. How to Help Children Through a Parent’s Serious Illness
- Munsch, Robert. Love You Forever
- Nussbaum, Ness, RN, MS. Preparing the Children
- Parkin, Rebecca & Karen Dunne-Maxim (1995). Child Survivors of Suicide: A Guidebook for Those Who Care for Them
- Rubel, Barbara (2000). But I Didn’t Say Goodbye: For Parents and Professionals Helping Child Suicide Survivors
- Wolfelf, Alan. Healing a Child’s Grieving Heart