Don’t be afraid to use the death word with kids

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It’s a sad fact, but at some point in their young life, your child will lose a loved one.

How do you help them process their grief and when do children need professional support?

Families magazine spoke to Dan Bordoley who is a Children and Young People’s Worker based at St Gemma’s Hospice in Leeds.

Dan supports children dealing with the very worst sort of loss – often a parent – and says there are as many different ways of grieving as there are children.

‘Everyone grieves in their own way, at their own pace,’ explained Dan.

‘Most model their parents, especially younger children. Very young children tend not to understand and so don’t accept the person has gone. They think they’re coming back.

‘Death doesn’t mean the same to a young child as it does to you and me. That changes when they get to about six years old. Then they begin to understand the person who has died isn’t coming back.

‘They will have feelings but at that age can struggle with verbalising them.’

Honesty and direct, real language are the key to communicating with children.

There’s a natural instinct as a parent to want to protect your child from sadness and loss, but most of the children Dan works with say they prefer to know what’s going on. It gives them the chance to ask questions, and gives parents the chance to explain things.

Tell them the truth. Excluding them can make them feel left out and resentful. By talking to them you control the information and keep communication channels open.

Let your child know it’s okay to ask questions. They will have worries and concerns and verbalising them can help keep them in perspective. Younger children will ask the same question over again. Be patient.

Don’t hide your emotions. By showing you are upset, you are giving them permission to do the same.

‘Be clear with the words you use.

‘Don’t be afraid to say “death” and “dying” otherwise the child will be confused,’ Dan adds.

‘If you say you’ve “lost” someone, a child thinks they can be found.

‘If you say someone has “fallen asleep” a child thinks they can be woken, or they can be scared to go to sleep themselves.’

It is important to keep boundaries in place. Children become confused when the boundaries they’ve lived with disappear. If they’re badly behaved, tell them. If they’ve got a routine, stick to it. You’re giving them a stability at a time when life feels very unstable.

Getting your child to draw a picture about how they are feeling can help to start a conversation and acknowledge what’s happened.

Locally, the Rowans Hospice and HIP (Help in Portsmouth) offer professional support for grieving children.