The topic of death can be challenging for parents, and it can be hard to know how to talk to a child about death.
Holly Willoughby has confronted it head-on with her three children.
The TV presenter shared pictures of letters to the Queen that were handwritten by Harry, 13, Belle, 11, and Chester, seven, expressing their thoughts after her passing. They were accompanied by a snap of them laying flowers at Buckingham Palace.
Parenting educator Rachel Vecht says it helps children to do something proactive in times of grief. The mum-of-four, who runs Educating Matters, shares tips on talking to kids about loss:
How to talk to a child about death
Find outlets for feelings
Children who feel they are actively doing something during challenging times can sometimes move on sooner than if they do nothing. For younger kids, it could be drawing a picture of their loved one, or writing a letter to the person they have lost.
Even if it only ends up on the fridge, it’s about outlets for their feelings. For older ones, that might mean posting a photo or message.
Flip their questions
If your child is asking difficult questions about death, find out what they want to know. Parents can jump in too quickly and cause unnecessary worry, when a simple explanation is enough.
Ask, “What do you think happens when someone dies?,” or, “What exactly do you want to know?” You can answer their questions age-appropriately without overwhelming them with information they might not need.
For younger children, keep explanations simple with words such as: “it’s really sad when someone dies because you won’t be able to see them again.” With older kids, you can go into more detail. Always be open, honest, and led by them.
Don't say they're sleeping
Avoid saying someone has gone to sleep or they’ve “left”. They could think they are coming back, or even worry that the next time they go to bed, they might not wake up themselves. It’s fine to say someone died.
For younger children, explain in terms they will understand. For example, gently tell them that when someone dies, their heart and lungs stop working. Being honest is best.
Try not to overshare
If struggling with loss, it is OK to cry in front of your child. But remember, kids mirror their parents’ emotions. Let them see you cry but don’t overshare how you’re feeling. Don’t make kids fearful by being hysterical.
Ask them to try a 'brain dump' exercise
Watch for signs of anxiety or stress, such as being unusually quiet, interrupted sleep, or loss of appetite.
Get older children to do a “brain dump”, where they write down the stream of thoughts then put them into two categories.
Ask for more time and be prepared to revisit the subject
If your child asks questions and you are put on the spot, say things such as, “That’s a really important question, but can I think about it and we can talk later?” But make sure you do come back to it. Perhaps set a reminder on your phone or ask them to remind you, so they don’t feel brushed off.
Be prepared to revisit the subject of death more than once, especially with young children, who take time to process information and often ask the same questions repeatedly.
Whatever the age, if your child feels you are dismissing them when they ask questions like, “What if Grandma dies?” and you say, “Oh that won’t happen, don’t worry about it,” they are less likely to share their concerns with you in future.
Don't try to fix things
Reassure them that feelings come and go like waves. It’s important for children to know that all feelings are acceptable and that you can never be wrong for having an emotion.
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