Helping Children Navigate Losing Someone
Death of someone we know, whether expected or sudden, is always something that brings with it a myriad of emotions, questions and changes. This blog post will give you ideas on how to support your child when they’ve lost someone and recommendations of books that can help to support and comfort them.
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In my years of teaching I used to find that there would be a certain point in my reception class’s year (4-5 year olds) where the topic of death became very prevalent for a time. It wouldn’t even need any direct correlation to someone dying. I think it’s the natural progression as children’s brains develop that they begin to wonder and ask more questions and their understanding of situations and feeling and emotions deepen.
Unfortunately, for some children the topic of death is forced upon them by circumstances out of their control. Sometimes it may not be the passing of a loved one but the fear of losing someone that encompasses their thoughts. This can be a very real fear when someone they care for is very unwell or just the growing knowledge of death and what it may mean to lose someone close to them.
I feel it is very important to answer questions our children may have honestly yet in an age appropriate way. Children sense when they think they haven’t heard the full story and just because they may stop asking the question doesn’t mean they are not still thinking.
The Unique Child
All children are unique and so how one child reacts to a situation can be completely different to another. This can be very challenging for parents of siblings when children can react very differently to loss. My first real experience of loss (and when I say real, the one that was close and I very much felt) was my Grandad passing.
It was very sudden and I remember my sister being very cross with me and couldn’t understand why the day after he passed I’d, in her eyes, carried on as normal and wasn’t upset enough. My sister didn’t go to school that day, she was dealing with her grief in her way. For me, it was my maths exam.
Maths had always been mine and Grandad’s ‘thing’. He’d helped me with homework and it was a passion we very much shared together – our special bond. To me there was no better way to honour my Grandad than to go and do my best in the exam. There’s no right or wrong way to react to losing someone. Loss is very personal.
Recently, as a family, we’ve had first hand experience of dealing with some of the situations I’ve described above. I wanted to share with you some of the things that helped us as a family that may be ideas you would think would work for your family too.
My Nan passed June 2021. She’d lived a great life and was 91! However, her death was still very sudden as she deteriorated from vascular dementia so quickly.
If you are looking for a book to talk to children about dementia I’d recommend The Tide by Clare Helen Walsh and Ashling Lindsay.
My four year old Floss had had lots of contact with her Great Gran up until the last couple of weeks before her death. She knew that Nan had not been well, which is why she had not seen her as much.
How to Talk About Death
Here are some ideas on how to tell your child that someone has died. I’ve expanded on each of the ideas listed below. The main thing for me is about making time, time to snuggle, read, play and just be together.
- Choose the right time for you as a family
- No disruptions
- Use simple language and be clear
- Hold the space – you don’t need to fill silence
- Ask how they are feeling but don’t push – use visuals
- Use a book
- Keepsake, photos, memories to share
- Look for the subtle cues that they need you
The Right Time to Talk About Death
Initially, I chose not to tell Floss straight away about Nan passing. Delaying may be something you are able to do. I made this decision for two reasons. Firstly, I wanted to be feeling in a place where I was able to deal with telling her emotionally. Secondly, I wanted to be able to give her the time (distraction free) she may need to be able to ask questions or just be together. There was so much to organise in the first few days that I just didn’t feel like there was the time I wanted to be able to give.
It was actually a good few days after that I talked to Floss. This also gave me time to prepare what I was going to say and gather together some resources.
As I mentioned earlier, I feel it is important to be honest and clear when talking to children about death. Floss understands that death is permanent, however this is only a recent thing. Some children may not realise that death means that they will not see someone again. It’s worth keeping this in mind.
Protected Time – No Disruptions
When the time was right I got together some feelings resources (this could just be little drawings you make of different faces), a book and a ‘character’ from the book. I said to Floss I needed to talk to her about something.
We snuggled close together on the sofa and I simply said – Nanny has died.
Often we can try to soften bad news using words that we feel will be more comforting such as ‘passed away’, ‘gone to the stars’ etc. I feel when you first tell anyone you should be clear on what has happened. Floss snuggled in closer to me and hugged me tight. It was several minutes later that she said – That’s very sad.
Hold the Space
We sat there together holding each other for a while. Don’t feel like you need to fill silence, there is probably a lot of thoughts and feelings being processed and that takes time.
Gently Explore Feelings
The feelings stars were just on the sofa beside us and Floss picked out the sad face after a while. I asked if that was how she was feeling. She said yes, a little bit, but that she also felt a bit happy and picked up the smiling star.
I asked her why she was feeling those feelings. She said that she was sad because Nanny was dead and that meant she wouldn’t see her any more but that she was also a bit happy because I wouldn’t have to go over and look after Nanny so I would have more time to play with her.
I’d been Nan’s carer for a while and the time she needed had massively increased and had absolutely impacted upon the time I could spend with Floss. I loved her honesty and I feel that by giving her the space to think and consider without prejudgment of how she might feel she’d actually come to a careful evaluation of how and why she was feeling as she was. I told her it was ok to feel those things and that I too felt sad yet also excited that we could spend more time together.
Books About Death
I had a book ready on the sofa too and Floss asked if we could read it. We shared Badger’s Parting Gifts together which is such a gentle book on helping children to understand the feelings surrounding the death of someone you care for. It very much focuses on the special memories you shared with the person who has passed. I’d found a little wooden toy badger that Floss held while we were reading the story.
After reading together we talked about special memories we had of Nan and how they made us feel. Floss recalled that she loved going to Nan’s and playing with her teddy bears (these are bears that my Nan and Grandad had when I was a child).
Floss suddenly said – Who’s going to look after Nanny’s bears? I said that I thought we could go and see them and see if any of them would like to come and live with us and that some of the others may want to live with Nanny’s other great grandchildren.
Floss wanted to go straight away (so glad I’d made the time for this to take as long as it needed). When we got outside Nan’s I reminded Floss that Nanny wouldn’t be there. She said simply yes Mommy, Nanny’s died. Before we headed inside she stopped at the door and said – Where has Nanny gone then?
We’re a secular family so my answer was reflective of that and honest – I don’t know. Floss asked if she was in the stars. My reply was I don’t know, but I said that some people believe that that’s where we go when we die. I explained that there were lots of thoughts of what happens and where you go. I asked her what she thought happens? She said that she thought Nanny was with the stars.
I left the book – Badger’s Parting Gifts – and the little wooden badger on a shelf in case Floss wanted to come back to it. A few days later I noticed Floss just standing and looking at the book one day.
After a few minutes she picked up the badger and hugged him. I asked if she wanted me to read the story again to her. She said yes and after we read it she asked – Will I die soon? I said usually people are very old when they die. Floss said – Nanny was very old. I could have so easily missed the subtle little cues she was giving me that she wanted to talk.
If your child has general questions about death and dying then I’d recommend the Usborne lift the flap book Why Do Things Die.
Conker the Chameleon by Hannah Peckham and Stephanie Jayne
Letters To The Stars – Mireia Gombau
More Book Recommendations
Achingly, beautiful. An incredible book for helping children to unpick some of the feelings associated with grief. Billy’s mum has died and we see not only the grief of Billy but also of his Dad, Billy likes to think of his Mummy as being up in the clouds. The weather very much at times mirroring his mood. One day, he really wants to talk to his Mummy and tries to climb a very tall ladder to see if she can hear him in the clouds. However, a storm is raging that puts Billy in peril. Fear not, Dad will be there to help comfort and soothe him.
It’s a book with such raw emotion and you feel instantly connected to Billy. It’s a lovely way to help families start talking about their grief and remembering their loved ones. It also shows a full spectrum of feelings that flood with grief and showing that these emotions are very normal.
This River published March 2022. The latest book release from the wonderfully talented Tom Percival blew me away when I read the eARC copy from NetGalley.
I adore Tom’s books and this one is something very special. It deals with the loss of a pet in the most delicate way.
It lets children know it’s ok to have different feelings and uses the analogy of the river to mirror the boys emotions and show that how we feel changes, ebbing and flowing like the water.
I hope that if your family are having a difficult time with loss and grief at the moment that you’re getting the time that you need together. Simple rhythms that pass the day in your home can really help such as meal times and other anchor points of the day. The most important thing we’ve found is to stay connected.
Sometimes that means being stuck to each other like glue, other times that’s sharing a story or playing together. Often we’ve found that doing our own thing in the same space has given us great comfort.
Floss has recently become obsessed with scissors and cutting things out. When things have seemed a little overwhelming for her she seems to turn to these type of activities. One of the projects that Floss spent ages doing was cutting out balloons to send letters like in the story from Letters To The Stars. I keep a little stash of home-drawn pictures for Floss to cut out when she chooses to have some quiet, focused time.
I’d love to know if you have any good book recommendations for supporting children with loss and grief. Please do drop a comment with your suggestions or email me at email@example.com.