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Having conversations with children and young people

Don’t leave it until someone has died if you can to talk to your child about death and dying before. Preparing them allows families to create an environment of open and honest communication and builds trust.

Giving children factual information means there is less opportunity for them to imagine situations and explanations that may be false, for example, this is my fault because I was naughty yesterday, when I get ill I will die too. Talking to them openly helps them make sense of the physical changes they see happening to an unwell person.

Having open conversations also give the person who is unwell the opportunity to have a role in preparing children for the possibility of his or her death. They get to say goodbye, and so does the child, and they get to do so in a way that feels right for them. Their time together may be limited, but it is still important time.

Five tips to help bereaved children from the Hospice’s Family Support Team

1) Bereaved children of all ages may be feeling worried and anxious. If they have lost someone before they will know the enormity of grief: the pain, the struggles and the heartache. Feelings may resurface and they may feel frightened. Reassure your child that you are there for them and are willing to listen to all their worries, big or small. Where possible, prepare your child by having open and honest conversations validating all their feelings. You don’t have control over these situations so find things you and your child do have control over and work on those together. It’s okay not to be able to fix everything as a parent, as some things you just can’t!

2) Be a good role model for your child and show them how you manage your own emotions. Children need to see that you are taking care of yourself and seeking support from family, from friends and from your community or professionals. This will show them that it is helpful and safe to reach out to others and that their emotions are important. Talk to them about their grief and help them understand that all these big and sometimes frightening feelings are normal. Feelings come and go because grief has its purpose – grief heals.  Show your child ways to calm down and help them come up with their own suggestions that will help. Gently remind them of these when they are feeling overwhelmed and displaying changes in behaviour. It may help you to understand that behaviour is communication, and any change in their behaviour is them letting you know that something feels very wrong in their life right now.

3) Be curious and interested. Identify what their worries are so you can help. Encourage open and honest conversations. Always tell the truth, adapting it to the child’s age and development. Once children have a good foundation of knowledge they can add to it when they are ready by asking questions.

4) Consider if there are things your child is hearing but not understanding, or if they are getting more anxious by the things they are reading and seeing.  It is also possible that children might overhear conversations, hushed phone calls about illness, hospitals, death, dying, funerals or mental health.  Hearing parts of conversations can sometimes lead to fantasies, especially for those children with vivid imaginations.  Take time to talk and explain in your own words, so that they can make sense of their thoughts with you.

5) Despite all the changes during a bereavement, try to keep to a routine. Structure gives a sense of security and will help you and your child through difficult times. Make plans, motivate each other, encourage your child to speak with friends and family, and have fun together as a family. Focus on connections by creating new memories – it’s okay to smile, giggle and laugh, just as it is okay to cry, shout and scream. If someone has died, talk about them and know that you have been through one of the hardest experiences of your life, and got through it. Take strength from your resilience and continue to engage in life with love and hope.