It’s not that long ago that Western society would keep children away from death, dying, grief and funerals. Children were kept sheltered from grieving adults or any talk surrounding the topic. As a result, children often experienced confusion and sometimes fears over what was happening. Today the advice tends to be more along the lines of being honest and sensitive.
For background, you could read this Parenting Resource’s ‘Lots of questions’ session notes for ages 25–36 months. It says:
‘When tough things happen, like death or separation or other trauma, children will ask questions as they try to come to grips with the event. Keep things simple, there’s no need to complicate matters with unnecessary details. There are no perfect answers but it’s important to try to answer as gently, simply and honestly as possible.’
A variety of ways to process death
Providing support for a family who are grieving will greatly depend on what is important within the tikanga of their whānau. Their beliefs and cultural practices will determine their approach to death and the associated practices. For some it will involve their church, minister and other members of their faith-based community. Others will connect with marae and include the extended whānau, hapū and iwi.
A new or familiar experience?
For some whānau, death of someone close could be a completely new experience. In this case they might need extra help to work through the situation and what feels right for them.
Some children may have had experience with death already. They could have seen death on TV, encountered a dead insect or animal, or experienced the death of a family pet. But experiencing a death of someone within the family or community might be quite different and may require more careful support and guidance.
Supporting children and getting support
The death itself may not be as upsetting for younger children as seeing their parents or other family members distressed. It is key to assure them that dad or mum are very sad, but they will be okay in time. If the adults around them are really struggling with their own grief, it can be helpful for their children to have other adults they know to step in and provide some support. They may be able to help calm their fears, answer their questions or explore their feelings with them.
Helpful books for children on death
There are a number of books for young children about death. Some depict funerals for insects, birds and animals; others discuss the death of a family member.
- Goodbye Mog by Judith Kerr — The lovable cat Mog has delighted generations of children with her clumsy misadventures, but Mog is now very old and very tired — so tired, in fact, that she’d like to sleep forever. This book tackles the issue of a pet’s death with a wonderful sensitivity and gentle humour, offering a reassuring conclusion to ease the sadness.
- The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams — When the Velveteen Rabbit’s owner has scarlet fever, all his toys have to be destroyed for fear of spreading infection. But the rabbit has been so well-loved that he’s made real. Such a beautiful book, again not directly about death, but about being taken away from someone you love, and the way things change and carry on.
- Suddenly It Is Goodbye by Stefanie Backhouse-Rudolph — A story for everyone who has lost a sibling. When a sibling dies, many things change in a child’s life: family structure, daily routine, their friends’ behaviour, parents will be upset and not coping, and there’s a feeling of tremendous loss and sadness. Children will experience all sorts of feelings. This book helps children to understand and talk about their grief, and to understand that their feelings are normal and part of the healing process. It’s for ages 2–13, but can be helpful for anyone who has lost a sibling.
- BabyCenter website: How to talk to your pre-schooler about death
- Parents website: Saying goodbye — Talking to kids about death
- Virtual hospice website: Understanding death and dying
This is a Canadian site that talks about the understanding of death and dying from infants through to teens. In the section on 2–4-year-olds it says that children may use play to work through their experience of death.
- Child Bereavement UK: Children’s understanding of death at different ages
A concise information sheet on children’s understanding of death at different ages.
- BabyCenter website: Questions about death — What preschoolers ask ... what parents answer
An American parenting site, from pregnancy through to primary-school-aged children.
- Visit Skylight Trust’s website, which has a variety of information designed to help children, their parents and whānau and also support people during times of grief.