By the time children reach primary school, there is likely to be one child in every class that has experienced the death of an immediate family member.
Children often jump in and out of their grief – at Winston’s Wish they call this ‘puddle jumping’. This can be very confusing for adults as children will need time and understanding to process their loss.
Children under 5 are unlikely to have an understanding of the permanence of death. They will react to being apart from a parent and may regress in their behaviour. They will pick up on the emotions of other family members and can become very unsettled.
Thankfully Winston’s Wish help support children through grief and have shared their top ten tips below.
- Involve the school
It helps for school and home to be in touch to share any concerns. Identify a teacher or support person at school who the child can go to if they feel upset or need to talk to someone.
School is a constant in your child’s life and may be where different behaviour is first noticed. A young child’s grief usually resurfaces as they reach new developmental stages.
For babies 0-12 months, this may be seen in eating and sleeping habits – such as restless nights! Toddlers (1-3 years) may start searching for the person who has died. They can become angry or hit out during play, masking underlying grief.
Between 3-5, children will start to ask questions and display a lot more emotions and possibly difficult behaviour.
Beyond the age of five, children and young people’s grief reactions may include anger, sadness, guilt and feeling anxious.
We may struggle to know what to say to anyone after a death, especially a child under 5 who may not necessarily understand what has happened?
Be as honest and as clear as you can about how the person died. Use clear language that they are comfortable with and check that they have understood.
Use words like, ‘Grandad has died’ to help children understand that being dead means something different to having ‘gone away’ or ‘gone to sleep’. Explaining that when a person has died their body doesn’t work anymore and they can’t walk, talk or feel can help children start to understand what being dead means.
Every child is different and your 4-year-old may have a different understanding of what has happened to your 14-year-old. Think of grief like a jigsaw, when they are young, give them small pieces to build their picture, but when they grow older and get a greater understanding, the puzzles get more complicated before the full story is piece together.
- Creating memories
One of the biggest worries parents can have is that their child will be too young to remember the person who has died and will soon forget them.
Children will piece together memories told by other family members and friends. Talking about the person and involving memories of that person in everyday conversations – ‘Daddy used to love sausages for tea too’ can be helpful.
There are a lot of helpful resources you can use to create memories, such as a memory box to store special items that belonged to that person, such as a watch, a scarf or their favourite perfume.
- Special days
For special days, such as mother’s day and birthdays, be prepared for what may be a difficult day. For example, if school is making mother’s day cards, they may be able to make a card to remember their mum or for another relative – giving them the choice is important and acknowledges that you are thinking about them.
- Grieving as a family
A death can bring some complexities as older children will have different memories and emotions to younger children. A young child may have older siblings that were present when the death happened or were involved in the funeral when they were not. This may lead to a young child feeling confused about what has happened to disrupt their family.
As a parent supporting a whole family that is grieving, it is important to respect that it’s different for each person. Find individual ways for children to take part in open conversations, important anniversaries and family events, this will help everyone to feel valued and included.
- How will it be when they grow up?
If young children have been given basic building blocks early on, as they grow older they will be able to add more information and understanding at different stages of their development. They will revisit a death at different points throughout their life. It might be starting a new school, scoring your first goal in football without dad watching or missing talking to mum for advice about relationships.
Even the smallest triggers may cause a child to revisit their loss, which may lead to different questions being asked.
Young people often love stories and use the pictures and words to learn about their own world. There are many stories for young children that discuss the idea of life and death. Think about introducing one of these stories, such as When Dinosaurs Die and Goodbye Mousie, to your child’s reading time and encourage them to explore feelings and thoughts as you read the book.
- It’s okay to ask for help
As a parent, you may sometimes feel as though you need to be a superhero. You want to protect your children and be strong. It’s okay to ask for help, though. There are a number of ways you can find help, whether it is asking other family members or friends to help out or whether it is to speak to someone professional.
If you would like support or want to talk to someone about supporting bereaved children, you can call the Winston’s Wish Freephone National Helpline on 08088 020 021, for free and confidential support. Never Too Young to Grieve is a new book by Winston’s Wish, aimed at helping parents and carers to support a child under 5 after the death of a parent.