The work of my friend Aidan Lynam was focussed on children and parents dealing with critical issues, so in the wake of his sudden death this post offers advice to parents trying to help their children deal with bereavement issues.
When telling a child that someone in their lives has died, try to use ordinary language, not hiding behind half-truths or metaphors: “This person has died”, not ‘gone away’ or ‘gone to sleep’.
Make it clear that we are all mortal, that death is a fact, not a myth, not un-do-able. Unfortunately children are surrounded by messages that tell them otherwise, so you’ll have to gently but firmly reinforce this fundamental truth.
Look, listen and love.
it is crucial not to pathologise where no pathology exists. Observe the way your child responds and bear in mind that a grieving child is going to be appropriately sad. It is normal for bereaved children to regress a little. They may want to want to sleep in your bed, or ask for more cuddles, want to watch endless Disney movies, or ask for a night-light because they’re afraid of the dark again. Younger children may wet the bed after a traumatic death; children of any age may have nightmares. Don’t scold them. Stay calm and reassure them. Hug them close, and often.
Listen for what they understand and beware of confusion: ‘sick’ or ‘hospital’ does not automatically mean ‘dead’ or ‘dying’.
Talk a little, listen a lot. Check that the child understands what you’ve told them by asking what it is they think you’ve said and also by listening to their play or their chat to others. Or their Facebook, texts, WattsApp if they’re teens!
Use age-appropriate language. Children will respond at their level of understanding and switch off from you when they reach the limit of their understanding. Watch out for that blank look or glazing over of their eyes, stop and wait. Come back later, over pizza or when tucking them in.
Let them know they can come back any time to ask a question, to clarify anything. Let them know you’re strong enough for and welcome the discussion of these strong feelings.
Model your feelings. If the death has affected you, let them know that you’re sad, too. Share your own previous experiences of grieving. Let them know that feelings, if expressed and shared, pass from being overwhelming to tolerable.
Young children can be comforted, as adults are, by the rites and rituals of mourning. Let them attend the funeral and participate in the service, if they are confident and familiar enough. Explain to them what to expect, so they are not confused by the ritual responses and procedures. Clarify the various roles and terms, for instance ‘undertaker’, ‘pall-bearer’, ‘hearse’. Children can be comforted by being involved in choosing a photograph for the service or gifts for the offertory and, later, memorial card verses.
Reassure the child that they are not responsible for the death. That may sound odd, but children manage the world by believing that they control it. So they may try to construct a narrative that makes them responsible for the situation. Listen carefully and be clear: “It was an accident.” “It was a serious illness.”
If you’re religious, explain your belief system to the child and share your beliefs honestly. Again, this offers children a set of words to articulate overwhelming fears and anxieties. We all understand what Heaven means, even if we don’t all believe in it (all the time).
Reassure the child that you, their own parents, are safe and that you love them and that there will always be adults in a broad, ever-expanding support network to protect them. Go through the list: Mum, Dad, aunt, uncle, grandmother, grandfather..; family, school, church, Scouts… Maybe play a game: how many adults can we assemble in this network, in what order of substitution: if granny dies then…
Aidan was a special man with a special audience. He will be missed by many special needs families, so here’s a word to these families:
Children with special needs often think it’s ‘bad’ to have ‘bad’ feelings like sadness and the anger that is a fundamental reaction to grief. So model your own feelings, name them and describe them (sadness, denial, anger, bargaining and finally acceptance). Explain that your actions (crying, turning away, becoming inarticulate at times) are a process, a working-through. Mark the times when you need comfort and when you’re feeling stronger and able to comfort. You’ll teach your children not to be afraid to be human, which is to be mortal.
Children with special needs should be treated with particular sensitivity. Normal grief reactions should be registered as normal and appropriate. These children – at whatever age -should be reassured that their normal routines (school, work, play or therapy) will not be unduly disturbed. Bereavement is change. The inevitable changes that follow the death of a loved one must be anticipated and then a compassionate care-plan put into action so that there is a time and space to work through the grieving process.
If your child was involved in a traumatic accident, make it clear to them that you are glad they were not hurt, that they survived when perhaps someone else didn’t.
We don’t clearly understand the consequences of serious injury or the finality of death until we are quite old, not just children and adolescents. So young people may fantasise that they ‘should’ have died, rather than the other person, out of a mistaken belief that their death and injury can be magically undone later – like on TV or in Disney movies. As their parents, you must make it absolutely clear you are glad they’re alive, and that their life and wellbeing is supremely important to you, until they can assume that responsibility themselves.
As the bottle says, “Rinse and repeat”. This is a life lesson; it’s learned over and over. Grief brings up every past experience of grief. In this way, we learn acceptance anew each time, whatever our age.
Books that help – select an age appropriate one:
Marg Heegard, ‘When Someone Very Special Dies – Children can Learn to Cope with Grief’
Susan Varley, Badger’s parting Gifts
Jostein Gardner, The Frog Castle
Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, any book with Death as a character.
Videos: ‘Up’, ‘The Lion King’.