10 ways parents can help children understand death and the stages of grief - Evewoman


How parents can help children understand death and the stages of grief

Children too understand that death is a painful and difficult subject

It's the one certainty we all face, yet in spite of how we've all experienced it in some way, death remains a poorly-navigated issue.

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'Denial of death' is becoming increasingly commonplace, but getting over this reticence is particularly important when helping a child understand and cope with their grief.

Dr Shelley Gilbert MBE, founder of Grief Encounter lost her mother at age four, then her father five years later.

Her experience of the grief and shock-waves such losses cause informs the important work the charity does to help children and their families through a painful and life-changing time.

But how do you explain the death of a loved one to a child? How can you help them through their grief when, as adults we struggle with the magnitude of the situation?

"What a teacher once said to me," explains Dr Gilbert, "is if a child's old enough to ask, they're old enough to hear the answers."

To help us change the way we view child bereavement, the mum-of-four has shared her and Grief Encounter's wisdom on what to say and what to do when a child suffers a loss.

1. Don't avoid the topic for fear of upsetting the child

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Children get the message that death is a difficult and painful subject very quickly - make an environment where they can ask questions, be listened to and can hear answers.

2. But remember, children take things literally

Use honest words. We'd advise against saying 'gone to sleep' and other euphemisms as these are confusing and don't convey the finality of what's happened.

3. It's also OK to say 'I don't really know'

Once you have created those opportunities for them to grieve and ask questions, depending on factors such as religion and personal beliefs, there may be questions you can't answer.

It's OK to tell the child 'I don't really know'.

4. And it's also OK to say 'I can't tell you now, but I will one day'

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A mother who was dealing with her husband taking his own life promised her children she would fully explain his death to them in the future.

That's a conversation no one wants to have or hear, but saying this keeps the conversation open - and importantly the child knows this.

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5. Accept that children are emotionally and psychologically damaged by bereavement

As a society we measure grief in a certain way which isn't helpful.

You can't measure the depth of grief in feet, or the 'time' it takes to 'get over' your grief - how long is a piece of string?

We look at the wrong measures - suicide, teenage pregnancy. Everyone does it differently and there is no getting through all the stages of grief.

Instead, give children the opportunities they need. These don't need to be words - they can express themselves through art, through other therapeutic approaches.

Parents should provide a safe environment for the child to express her grief

6. Allow as many rituals or ceremonies as they need

As a society, we don't have many rituals to do with death or saying good-bye other than the funeral.

Again, creating smaller, personal occasions will give them opportunities to grieve.

These can be anything, for example celebrating Mother's Day even if your mother has died. You still have a mum - she's just not here.

7. Making a memory bank

This especially applies to when a parent or sibling is terminally ill.

Making these memories should bring people closer together.

We encourage people to do things they're not comfortable with, but the reality of the situation is this is a very difficult thing to do.

It's an opportunity to say good-bye, but some people can't say good-bye to their kids. As a mother, I don't think I could.

8. Be aware there are secondary losses

Death and premature losses can tear families apart. Children can end up losing a lot more than a parent, sibling or loved one.

There are often house moves associated with the death, fall-outs over money. Children lose friends and relatives in the process.

9. Bereavement should be a team effort

Experiencing death at a young age is a trauma and as with all trauma, we go into survival mode, which is the first phase.

The second phase is making sense of it.

We often take away the opportunities to do that when the school, family, friends should all be pulling together.

Our aim is help a child play again.

And lastly...

Where we're going wrong is by becoming a death denial society.

That first experience of death is very important but the chance to grieve can be difficult to come by.

Listen to the child, find a better way to measure what they're going through, give them the language to express their grief and then give them the opportunities to do so.

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