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Talking to a child about death

For many children and young people, the death of a family pet or a grandparent will be their first experience of death and may come as a shock. At Tom Owen and Son, we personally experienced the sudden death of a family cat in early November. We know first hand how this death can affect children and this blog will explore child grief and how to deal with it.

Talking to a child about death

Child Grief Awareness week occurs between 18-25 November. According to Grief Encounter 1 child in every UK classroom under the age of 16 has been bereaved of a parent or sibling.

Some children and young people won't know how to express their feelings following a death of a relative or a pet. The death may trigger feelings of anxiety or cause them to withdraw. Talking to a child about death can help them feel more supported and secure. It will help to alleviate any fears or questions they have.

Be honest and use plain language

It is important to speak to a child about the death as soon as possible. You should try to break the news to them in the most simplest and straight forward way possible, ideally by someone close to them. This won't be an easy conversation to have, as you may be worried how they will react. You should use language appropriate to the age of the child or young person.

You should always use plain clear language when explaining who has died. Children may become frightened or scared if you say 'grandad has gone to sleep' and therefore it is best to avoid euphemisms.

Be honest with your feelings

It's ok for your child to see you upset about the death of the family pet or person that has died. It is easy to want to protect your child by avoiding crying in front of them, but by doing so you are allowing your child to know it's ok to miss someone. Don't try to hide your pain.

Give them time to talk about their feelings

Children will experience a wide range of feelings following a death of a family member or pet. They may feel sad, and wish they were back in their life. They may feel angry that the death could have been avoided or that they feel to blame. Providing lots of reassurance, hugs and allowing your child the time to talk about their feelings is very important and will ensure they feel supported and cared for. You should try to avoid telling your child to not be sad or angry.

Give them the opportunity to ask questions

You won't always have the answer to their questions about death, but if you are prepared that your child will be curious about death and may ask lots of questions it will help. Try to be as honest as you can with your answers.

Encourage them to talk about the person that has died

Sometimes we are all guilty of avoiding talking about the person or animal that has died, to stop others feeling sad. However, a child may want to talk about the person. They should be encouraged to talk about their relationship and feelings toward the person or pet. They should reminisce about memories of them.

Create a memory box

We personally found it incredibly therapeutic and helpful to process the death of our beloved family cat when we created a memory box. It contains pictures of him, one of his whiskers and some fur plus his collar. By putting this memory box together with our daughter, she was able to deal with her feelings and make them more positive.

Tips for talking to a child or young person about death

Here are some tips for talking to your child about death:

  • Be honest and tell them as soon as possible;
  • You should always use clear language and avoid saying things like 'grandad has gone to sleep' or 'Nanna passed away';
  • Be honest with your child about how you feel following the death;
  • Allow your child the time and space to talk about their feelings;
  • Give them the opportunity to ask questions about death;
  • Encourage them to talk about the person or animal that has died;
  • Work together on creating a memory box related to the person or pet that has died.

You can read about whether children should attend a funeral here.