When someone important dies it is a distressing event to which people react differently. Some may be shocked, some seem numb, whilst others get very upset and tearful. Coping with personal feelings can be especially difficult if children need to be supported too. It may be difficult for a parent to do the Ã¢â‚¬Ëœnormal’ things and keep to the same routines as their whole perspective changes when they are in shock.
“How you handle death and grief is a blueprint for how your children handle death and grief in their emotional lives,” advises parent coach and author, Sue Atkins, of Positive Parents Confident Kids. “As a parent you are a real-life role model for your children.”
Parents often try to protect their children by not talking about illness or death. This is, of course, understandable as not everyone is comfortable talking about their emotions or knows what to say. However, Sue Atkins believes that, “children are sensitive, intelligent people who need to be listened to and asked how they feel. They have their own personal unique relationship with the person who has died and need to be allowed to express their grief.”
Children handle death and loss in a number of different ways, as do adults, and it is important to understand that children of differing ages react in different ways, and not always as an adult may react or behave.
Children’s understanding of death comes gradually:
Under five years:
- children of this age have little abstract sense of time or distance, so final and forever means very little to them
- dead means less alive
- death is a sleep or a journey
- death and life are interchangeable
From five to eight years:
- death is a frightening person
- death is final
- death is often seen as the end result of violence and aggression
- and often there’s an intense interest in the rituals surrounding death
From around nine years onwards:
- children understand that death is the end of bodily life
- death is inevitable, final and happens to everyone eventually
From around nine years of age most children will have an adult view of death although this will depend on their development, maturity and past experiences of death. “The best way of understanding what children think and feel about death is to listen carefully, talk gently with them, and be guided by them.”
Many parents feel that childhood is a time free from difficulties and challenging events but in reality this just isn’t the case. It is how the parent handles the challenges that makes their children grow up well balanced, resilient and strong, able to handle the blows life deals them.
“Don’t be afraid to be completely natural in your own grief – don’t hide it away from your children. Grief is a natural emotion. Sadness is part of life and by talking it through together your child can experience the healing process first hand,” advises Sue Atkins.
Organisations to help:
Winston’s Wish – The Clara Burgess Centre, Bayshill Road, Cheltenham GL51 3WH
Tel: 01242 515157
Helpline: 0845 203 0405 (Mon-Fri 9-5pm)
Childline – Freepost NATN1111, London E1 6BR
Tel: 020 7239 1000; 0800 1111 (24-hour helpline)
Childhood Bereavement Network
Tel: 0115 911 8070
Child Bereavement Trust
Tel: 01494 446648 (general inquiries); 0845 357 1000 (information and support line)