Death and loss are hard to explain to children, so it’s no surprise that we often don’t know where to start.  Here’s what parents need to know

Grief and loss are complex emotions for adults, but even young children can be affected, and may need help to process what has happened. While our natural instinct is to protect them from all the upset, this can sometimes cause confusion or even fear, so it is better to help them address their feelings and put them into context.

Most children will experience loss at some stage – it may be a treasured family pet, a beloved family member or someone in the public eye. One of the big things that adults often get wrong is language. Telling a very young child someone that has gone or is lost them may make them wonder where they have disappeared to and if they will be found. Similarly, euphemisms such as gone to sleep and passed on can sound alarming to a child who has not yet got to grip with adult figures of speech. While it may sound harsh to your ears, it’s a good idea to use the plainest language you can.

Sharing and talking

Be ready for the follow-on questions that younger children will often ask – where bodies go, if food is still required, and so on. Older children may talk less, but still have lots of questions they have difficulty in expressing – particularly if they see the adults around them upset. Don’t shut children off from your feelings or stop talking about the subject when they are around – it is better to share. This may include explaining that you are sad and why that is. Similarly, it is far better to include references in conversation over the weeks and months afterwards and let children continue to open up about their own feelings. This may take a while, so prepare to face questions and discussions that seem to come from nowhere.

Making memories

One of the best ways to help the process of opening up – and discussion – is to keep the person or animal who has died present through physical reminders. Sometimes photos or even memory boxes you create together may be helpful. These objects help young minds to rationalise and process. If you are concerned that this isn’t addressing their feelings adequately, there are many other sources of support and help – from trusted teachers who know your child well to bereavement charities that offer specific support to assist families and children of all ages.

Child Bereavement UK

Further reading: Tackling tiny terrors before they become big phobias