Let’s talk about death

Discussing death can be difficult, but it's important to talk to your child about their experience and what's going on.

By Eliza Henry-Jones

How can we help children process grief and bereavement when we’re not sure how to process it ourselves?

I spoke to Hayley Lowe, who runs children’s groups at the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement (ACGB). She also works in private practice and as a school counsellor.

At the ACGB, Hayley runs the KidsGrieve2 program, for children aged between 6 and 12 years.

The program helps children who have lost fathers, mothers, siblings and other family members.

First, let’s unpack some of the terminology. Bereavement refers to what’s happened to you – your partner or parent or sibling has died and you are bereaved. Grief is the individual experience of that bereavement.

“We all experience our grief very differently,” Hayley says. “I describe grief as being like fingerprints. We all have our own prints. No one has the same prints.”

Processing emotions, including grief, is a learnt skill. Helping children to identify their emotions is the first step towards regulating them.

“Our job as adults is to teach them how to regulate. As they mature and get older, that’s when they learn how to self regulate, that’s when they’ve had that support,” Hayley says.

As parents, we want to protect our children. In situations of grief and bereavement, often these impulses can lead to children becoming more confused, sad and distressed.

“It’s really important that you talk to your children about their experience and what’s going on. Children are so aware,” Hayley says.

By shying away from concrete language with younger children, we’re preventing them from understanding their grief.

Telling children that their loved one is up in the sky can lead to children trying to find them. In extreme cases, children may not understand the permanency of death and will attempt self-injury in order to join their loved one.

Children may also spend time looking or waiting for their loved one to return. Sometimes parents will tell children that daddy’s gone to sleep and he’s not waking up, leading to children experiencing sleep disturbances, fearful that if they go to sleep, they’ll die, too.

“It is hard in our society. In western culture, death is seen as taboo,” says Hayley. “At the end of the day, we’re kind of scared of our own mortality. We want to protect them but it’s really important that we have open conversations with them.”

Adults have a tendency to underestimate how much their children are noticing.

“Kids are great observers,” says Hayley. “A common thing we hear from parents is ’oh, they don’t understand’ but really they do. Their developmental and chronological age plays a part.”

“Given that 77 per cent of communication is non-verbal, chances are, your child is noticing far more than you think they are – even if you’re not openly communicating.“

Parents can also struggle to understand their children’s grieving processes.

“Often we’ll have parents saying ’they were crying five minutes ago and then two seconds later they were playing’,” says Hayley.

“But kids grieve differently to adults. They grieve in doses. Like jumping in and out of puddles. They’re in that puddle, they’re sad and crying and missing mum and dad, and then all of a sudden they’re out.

“What’s really important for healthy grieving is that we oscillate between those two. It’s a great indication that they’re processing. They’re able to have that moment, be in that sadness and then jump out of that puddle.”

There are five aspects to understanding death that children progress through.

Universality

“They’re really quick to understand that people are getting old. They might have a pet die or one of their favourite characters on television or in a movie might die. They start to understand that it’s a universal experience,” Hayley says. “They question – well, if mum has died and my dog has died, does that mean that I can die as well? They start asking those kinds of questions.”

Irreversibility

“As they start to understand that everyone around them can die they unpack what death means, that it’s irreversible,“ Hayley explains. “Developmentally, a 3-year-old will think they’re going to come back. With a 14-year-old, it’s more concrete. They understand that they’re not coming back.”

Non-functionality

“Children are very curious about what happens when the body dies. We see that quite frequently. We have a book that we read to the kids that’s called ’what does dead mean’ opening a space to create conversation to help them understand what does death mean,“ says Hayley. “Common questions we get include, ’what do you do when you’re dead? Can you hear? Can you see? Do they go to the toilet?’“

Causality

This is when they make meaning and make sense of what death actually is.

Hayley says: “They start to ask, what causes death? Why do people die?”

Children are generally very egocentric and we find sometimes this can lead to them having a lot of internalised guilt. For example, a parent saying that “you’ll be the death of me” and then dying. Children will feel as though they killed their parent.

Continuing bonds

“Children try to make meaning of where religion and their beliefs come into play,” Hayley said. “Where does the soul go when you die? Will I ever come back to life again? That’s what they’re trying to understand.”

Top tips for talking to your children about loss

– Use concrete language. For example, “dad’s died and that means he’s not coming back”.

– No false promises. For example, a child might ask “are you going to die?“ Don’t promise your child that you’re not going to. Have the conversation and be honest. For example, “One day, I will die but right now that’s very unlikely.”

– Check-in with your children. Ask them what they’re feeling and experiencing and gently help them identify those feelings if they’re struggling to.

– Listen. Listen more.

“At the end of the day, kids just want to be heard,” Hayley said.

The ACGB recommends the Children’s Book: What does dead mean? By Caroline Jay, Jenni Thomas, Unity Joy Dale (Illustrator)

For more information, please visit: https://www.grief.org.au/