Question of the Week: How to Talk to a Child about Death
10th April 2017 / 7 comments
Once a week, we hear from a community member who has a question, and we respond with our advice, right here on the blog. This week we heard from Maggie, who is dealing with the death of a loved one and is unsure how best to support her daughter through her grief.
Q – I recently lost my father after a short illness, and though I am obviously extremely sad, I am trying to be strong for my daughter.. She is 12 years old and she was very close to her grandad; he retired just as she was born and they had a very special relationship. My daughter is heartbroken, and it breaks my heart seeing her like this, but I don’t know how to help her. She is usually very bubbly and chatty, but she has become very reserved and quiet since my dad passed away. This is the first time somebody she was close to has died, and we’ve never really talked about death properly. Do you have any tips on how I can talk to her about what has happened, and how to help her through her grief? Thanks, Maggie.
A – Hi Maggie. I am so sorry for your loss, and for your daughter’s too. Coping with the death of a loved one is hard enough as an adult, but as a child it can be even harder, as they don’t quite have the emotional maturity that helps us ‘grown-ups’ cope.
It’s perfectly understandable that your daughter has become very quiet and is acting out of character; this is something she has never experienced before, and she is most likely in shock and unsure how she should be feeling. This most likely is the reason that she isn’t talking about it, as she doesn’t know what to say or how to feel. Here are a few ways we can think of to talk to your daughter and help her through her grief.
Communicate your feelings
If you are struggling to get your daughter to open up and talk about her feelings, don’t try and force it. Instead, sit her down and talk to her about your feelings. Explain to her that you are hurting after the loss of your father, and that this feeling is completely normal. Tell her that it’s normal to cry and to want to shut yourself away, and that being upset is nothing to be ashamed of.
By opening up to her and communicating your feelings, you are showing her that it is normal to feel hurt and possibly even anger. Children often believe that adults are indestructible and don’t get upset about the same things they do. You said you were trying to ‘be strong’ for your daughter; help her see that you can be strong and also be sad and upset. By showing your daughter that you, too, are having these feelings, she knows that she isn’t alone, and this will more than likely encourage her to open up and tell you what she is thinking and feeling.
Don’t be scared to talk about your loved one
It’s common when somebody passes away for people to be worried about talking about them, for fear of upsetting others. However, one of the worst things you can do is turn their name into a taboo word, and avoid talking about them at all. This doesn’t help anybody, and it is unfair to the person who has passed away; they lived a full life, and deserve to be remembered and talked about.
It may be painful at first to talk about your father, but focus on the good times and your favourite memories of him. You don’t have to talk about him all the time, but if you have a moment when you’re feeling particularly sad, think of something happy and share it with your daughter.
Pass down a keepsake
One way to help your daughter remember her granddad, and to help her feel close to him, is to pass down something that belonged to him. This could be something he collected, or something valuable, like a piece of jewellery. Or, it could be something comforting like an old jumper or scarf; something she can hold close when she is sad, and help her feel connected to him.
Make her laugh again
We all know how hard it is to feel happy again while we are mourning. Sometimes we even feel as though we shouldn’t laugh, as though this somehow goes against how you ‘should’ feel during this process. However, it’s important to give yourself a break from the grief, and treat yourself to a little light relief every now and then.
It’s important for your daughter to understand that it’s ok to go about her life as normal again whenever she is ready. Let her know that it’s good to forget about the grief for a while, and let herself be happy. Help her with this by doing something she loves; watch her favourite film or TV show, visit her friends, or go for a day out somewhere fun. Help her learn to laugh again, and she will soon have more good days than bad. Slowly, over time, the pain will fade and she will get back to being her usual cheerful, bubbly self, and she will be able to remember her granddad with love and talk about the happy times, knowing that he is always in her heart.