“Nearly everybody who contacts us at Childhood Bereavement Network nearly always starts by asking: Can you recommend some counseling for a bereaved child? I always just say, Talk me through your concerns. They would list their concerns and 9 times out of 10, they would describe behaviors that are totally normal for a child who doesn’t understand what is happening. Young children’s brains aren’t developed enough to understand that when somebody dies, they don’t feel cold or hungry… They don’t understand that death is final. It can seem obvious but you need to break it down and explain it. If you don’t, there is a probability that they will remain confused. I had a case where a child lost a baby brother and he kept asking questions like Who is minding him now? Where is he? Is somebody feeding him? At that age, they don’t understand, so you have to break it down. It can seem counterintuitive because we think we should be protecting our children from the reality of what death means. Parents often try to soften it by saying things like, ‘He is in a better place now’ or ‘He is at peace’. All these sayings confuse them even more. You need to be quite honest and concrete which may feel quite harsh but actually, it’s much easier for them to comprehend. Most of the time not knowing and not understanding can lead to anxiety. Also, talking about grief is not a once-off conversation done perfectly. This should be a topic that is discussed as they mature. What they can absorb when they are five is different from what they can understand when they are 10 or 15. Many people confuse this with regression, but it’s actually quite normal. They are revisiting what happened at a new level of understanding. We always say if a child asks a question, they are ready for the answer. So, give them an honest answer. If you are not sure how to answer just say: That’s a great question, let me think about the answer and I’ll get back to you on it later today. Then, give us a call and we help you with the best answer.”
Grief for children is devastating, confusing, and often lonely, and heartbreaking for parents and families who are also grieving. While it’s completely natural to want to protect children, the best thing to do is give them age-appropriate information about a death.
The Irish Childhood Bereavement Network is there for you if you’re supporting a bereaved child or teenager.