A subject as difficult as death is incredibly difficult to talk about with children, but there are ways that you can overcome these tough conversations and ways you can help your child to process their emotions in a constructive way.
Dr Shelley Gilbert, founder of Grief Encounter (which is the UK's leading childhood bereavement charity), runs through techniques we can use to keep communication open, including using a grief 'first aid kit'.
Dr Gilbert has shared her top 5 tips to coincide with the UK release of Dick Bruna’s classic Miffy book Dear Grandma Bunny, which tackles death in a way children can understand and explains why it's okay to feel sad over the loss of a loved one.
1. Start The Conversation
Children very quickly understand that death is a difficult and painful subject. Be sure to make an environment where they can talk about death openly. It is also really important to be the first to start conversations.
If the circumstances are difficult or traumatic, prepare yourself to answer difficult questions. It is also OK to say ‘I don’t want to tell you now but I will one day’. This keeps the conversation open and allows your child to know you can be trusted.
2. Postcard systems
To keep communication open, use honest words. Dr Gilbert advises against saying 'gone to sleep' as euphemisms such as these are confusing and don't convey the reality of what's happened.
Books such as ‘Dear Grandma Bunny’ and ‘Chocolate Chipped: a smelly book about grief’ are a great way to explain death to children.
You could also encourage your child to use a ‘postcard’ system. The Grief Encounter Workbook postcard suggests ‘Things I can’t tell you, but want you to know’.
3. Grief 'first aid kits'
It is extremely common for a child’s grief to surface several weeks or months after the death of a loved one, or come in waves.
In this case, it’s good for children to feel like they have a tool they can use throughout these tough periods.
Make a ‘First Aid Kit’ with them and fill it with things that can give them a sense of comfort when they need it.
For example a ‘worry box’ for them to write down their worries to put into or the perfume/aftershave of their lost loved one.
This can be completely private and something that they feel they have control over.
4. Make a 'love lexicon'
Memories are a way to keep a loved one's memory alive.
Craft activities such as Memory Jars or letter writing are a great way to do this.
Another great idea is to plant a tree somewhere like Miffy does to remember her Grandmother in Dear Grandma Bunny.
5. Try 'teacher time out cards'
A support network is vital throughout grieving process. Seek out the people that the child trusts such as a favourite teacher, a best friend, or an older sibling.
This support network will be invaluable in providing an ear when the child is ready to talk.
Sometimes, children might need encouragement to speak out their team. One of the ways the team can do to help with this are 'Teacher Time Out Cards', these cards are to be given to a teacher at school which tells them if they are finding everything too much and they need a break.
Dear Grandma Bunny, Simon & Schuster UK, is available from Waterstones, priced from £4.99 (hardback)