It is a sad fact that sometimes children can be faced with the death of a loved one. Knowing what to say when an adult suffers loss is difficult, knowing what to say to a child is even harder.
Here are some examples of language* that is suitable and language to avoid when speaking to your child about death.
“It’s not your fault that mummy died”
Quite often children feel responsible for the death of a loved one. Day to day the language we use is so throw-away such as “you will be the death of me”. Children will naturally make it about them so it is good to reassure them that it is not their fault.
“Daddy was very poorly and the doctors and nurses tried to make him better but he was too poorly and he died, not everybody gets this poorly or dies”
This language is factual, honest and ensures they know it won’t happen to everyone they know. It is also not ignoring the fact that it is very sad.
“Can you tell me about your daddy”
Don’t be afraid to talk to the child about the person they have lost. Providing space for the child to open up about the person that has died will enable them to see that you are comfortable to talk about it. If they don't take you up on the offer to talk right at that moment that is okay. When the moment is right for them they will now know you are there and ready to listen.
“When someone dies they don’t feel any pain, they don’t feel cold, hungry or thirsty anymore”
Children worry about how the person will feel now that they are dead so reassuring them that they won't feel all of these things is important.
Just be with them.
They may need to ask the same question over and over again as they process what has happened. Be patient and provide answers every time (even if you have said it before). This consistent approach will show them that you are there to support them through this difficult time.
Ask open questions
Be general, for example "tell me about your picture?" and allow them the time and opportunity to talk.
“I don’t know”
If you don’t know the answer then be honest. Explore it with them “I wonder about that, I am not sure, what do you think?”
Language to avoid
“She is a star and watching over you”
This kind of language can be threatening for a child as it may make them feel constantly under scrutiny and they may take it very literally. Which star are they? Why can’t I see them tonight? However, if you are a teacher and a child in your class is using this language about somebody they have lost then you must go with it - if it is working for them and is part of their family's coping strategies we must be supportive of this. It is so important to work with families through these difficult times; communicating approaches so that they are consistent for the child.
“You need to be brave and help your daddy”
Bravery in this context seems to be about suppressing your emotions - we want them to be showing emotions. Brave suggests that bottling it up and moving on is the best way; closing down paths of communication and shutting down their feelings. Instead we need to welcome moments of feeling sad, angry and frustrated; talk about them and work through them together.
“Grandad passed away”
Using language such as ‘passing’ or ‘passed away’ can be very vague. What does that mean? ‘Pass’ is meaningless to a young child; will they pass back to real life again? Using factual and straight language such as ‘died’, 'death' or ‘dead’ is really important to a child - there is no confusion or ambiguity.
“Great grandma died in their sleep”
This idea can be really scary to a child. They may worry that they will die in their sleep and can make bedtime quite daunting.
* Child Bereavement UK for further information or support.