Bereavement and what to tell the children

The death of a relative or a close friend is one of the hardest things anyone will have to deal with in their lifetime. However it can be exceptionally difficult to break the news to children, especially when you are dealing with pain that follows bereavement. Although it is impossible to take away a child’s pain, there are things you can do to ease this, starting off with how you approach talking about the death.

Telling a child about a bereavement

We understand you may be worried about telling your children about bereavement and rightly so, you may be worried about their reaction to the news. However avoiding talking about the person who has died isn’t helpful and it is important to be as open and honest as you can be - children can tell when adults are upset.

Use clear, plain language they will understand  

When explaining a death to a child, children’s charity Barnardo’s, suggests using the words ‘death’ or ‘dead’ as opposed to statements such as ‘we have lost this person’ and ‘gone to sleep’ as this can instil stress and unnecessary feelings of anxiety amongst children. It is also important to explain that death happens to us all, as children have been known to develop separation anxiety as a result.

Explain the cause of death

When informing children of bereavement it is also important to explain the cause of death in a way they will understand (dependent on their age) and this alleviates the risk of children thinking they are to blame. An example Barnardo’s used to illustrate this was a parent who told their child to stop running in the hospital as their grandmother was sick and following the death, the child experienced feelings of it being her fault. A child’s imagination can run wild and often be far worse than the reality so it’s important to be honest and explain in simple terms they can understand.

Encourage children to ask questions

We all know how much children love to ask questions and this should be encouraged, however expect them to ask the same question multiple times – this is understandable and more common in children of younger years. Although this may be distressing for you, remember that this helps them to process the information and their level of understanding will depend on their age, stage in life and previous experience.

Attending the funeral  

According to the British School of Attitudes, 48% of those surveyed are of the opinion that it is inappropriate for children under 12 to attend funerals and this is a widely debated topic with many differing views. Although it may be deemed inappropriate for small children between 0-4 years to attend a funeral, a child who is between four and nine years old and who has formed a relationship with the deceased i.e. a grandparent will also be likely to grieve the death and where possible, should be given the option to attend. Above all, the funeral is an opportunity for family and friends to say goodbye to the person they loved and should be seen as a celebration of their life.

Give children a choice: we do recommend giving your child the choice to attend the funeral if they wish. You may want to shelter them, however in later life children have been known to express disappointment of not being able to attend a funeral of a loved one. To put this into context, the child bereavement charity, Winston’s Wish, has said they have never come across someone who regretted attending a funeral as a child.

Unable to attend her father’s funeral at the age of 10, Emma Williams stated that by having the chance to attend, she would have been able to say her final goodbye and help the grieving process. However, on the other hand, Rachel West didn’t allow her children aged four and six to attend their father’s funeral as her personal upset would have caused them too much distress.  

Respect their wishes: if your child decides they don’t want to attend, respect their wishes. There are alternatives they can do to celebrate their loved ones life such as drawing a photo or writing a letter which the deceased could be buried with or a tree could be planted in their memory as a place to visit which can be seen in this story.

Of course there is no right way to approach telling children about death, nor is there a right or wrong decision on whether children should, or should not attend a funeral – it’s all down to the parents. What are your thoughts on the matter? How have you approached telling children about death?