Supporting a child when someone close to them has died can be a challenging and raises many questions about how best to deal with their grief.
How you handle it can depend on many things, including the child’s cultural background, how their loved one died and importantly their age.
Clinical psychologist Dr Andrew Frankland, of Southern Highlands Psychology, specialises in children and adolescents and says the way we speak to children when they are grieving is important in helping them make sense of their feelings.
When you speak to a bereaved child it is best to keep language as simple as possible taking into account the child’s age. Allow them to ask questions and reassure them that is ok to have lots of different feelings. Above all let them know they are loved and safe, says Dr Frankland.
“Try to use clear language – died rather than gone or passed away. Using softer language can be confusing or make them think death isn’t permanent,” Dr Frankland says.
Attending a funeral
Deciding whether a child should attend a funeral can be difficult but taking the choice away from children can make it harder for them to mourn and lead to more complicated feelings later on, Dr Frankland says.
“I would tend towards supporting children to attend funerals, although to be sure that children are appropriately prepared by making sure they understand what death means,” he says.
“I would also suggest having a trusted adult who is not directly involved in the service who can be near the child and take them out if they start having a tricky time especially for younger children who may become bored or restless.”
Viewing the deceased
Deciding whether a child should spend time with the deceased depends on so many things, including what the child wants, their age and their cultural background. Dr Frankland recommends giving the child the choice, but to let them know what to expect. That the person will be in a coffin, they will appear to be asleep and they will be cold.
Different stages of grieving
Children experience grief differently to adults, says Dr Frankland. One of the biggest differences is they grieve in a ‘stop/start’ way. It can be confusing for adults who may think the child has moved on quickly. Children can give the impression of coping then may have a huge emotional response to seemingly trivial things.
“I often tell parents grief is like going through a long tunnel – the only way to come out the other end is to go all the way through, and it doesn’t mean the grief is over. For children they might stop and start that journey quite a few times,” Dr Frankland says.
Support from others
It helps to get support from others to help your child through their grief. This could include teachers, coaches and close family friends. If it is a significant loss, such as a parent or sibling, the grief may take longer so schools play an important part in checking in with children.
“I would recommend carers contact the school throughout that first year and ask for their perspective. With a younger child, I would recommend telling the parents of the child’s very close friends. For high school children you might ask them if they want to tell their friends’ parents or if they would prefer you do it,” says Dr Frankland.