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’ 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 earlier last month. She’d lived a great life and was 91! However, her death was still very sudden as she deteriorated from vascular dementia so quickly. 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.
Conker the Chameleon
Floss has only recently started to be able to talk about how she is feeling and I very much put that down to the book Conker the Chameleon. Here’s my review from just over a month ago.
This delightful book could not have come at a more apt time for us as a family. There have been so many big feelings for us to deal with as adults that I’m amazed at the resilience shown by Floss over these last couple of months. I adore rhyming books and this has such a gentle patter and flow as you read, really drawing you further into the charming world of Conker.
Conker the Chameleon teachers us, in such a tender way, that no matter how you may look on the outside, there may be more going on inside. He isn’t like the other chameleons who show how they are feeling by the colour their bodies turn. He wants to be like the other chameleons and show how he is feeling. However, he soon learns that his special gift is to help others share how they are feeling by talking. He soon feels much better himself once he’s spoken to a friend.
At the back of the book their is a lovely ‘self-care’ scavenger hunt to find things that may help your little one if they need some help to regulate how they are feeling. There’s also a lovely ChaMEleon tree to add things such as what you are proud of and what helps you when you feel sad.
Feelings and Emotions
This is such a brilliant book to help children talk about how they are feeling. Pairing together with some emotions resources such as the stars or even making your own picture cards would make the perfect addition to help explore feelings further.
It’s certainly a book I’d recommend for your book shelf to have to hand when big feelings come. As I say it’s been so valuable for us as a family while we have been dealing with poorly family members, me needing to spend more time taking care of others giving rise to some separation anxiety and grief.
Floss has always been one not to talk much about how she is feeling (she’s only 4), but after we’ve shared this book several times she’s begun to come up to me and say ‘mommy I feel worried’ or ‘mommy I feel a bit funny but I don’t know why’ and it’s been such a gentle way in to talking about feelings and exploring them more with her. Thank you @h.j.peckham for gifting us this incredibly special book, it could not have come at a better time for us, we are so grateful to you.
Letters To The Stars – Mireia Gombau
Another book that has been very much treasured at this difficult time is Letters To The Stars. Thank you to the author Mireia Gombau who kindly sent us a copy. It was such a timely book for us as a family. It’s a heart warming little story about Noa whos Nana has passed away.
Noa is upset that she can’t share the news of things happening in her life with Nana. She misses the things they used to do together.
Then Noa’s mother shares a secret with Noa that she could still speak to her Nana through a letter. Noa scribes her letter and sends it off to find her Nana in the stars.
This book is so comforting and feels like it’s wrapping you in a huge hug. Floss and I have really enjoyed sharing it together. I love how the text is written in a simple, light way giving space for thoughts of your own. There are many opportunities throughout the book to pause and consider the similarities and differences in your own circumstances and that of Noa’s.
Mireia is a passionate author and self publisher on books that support children’s social-emotional intelligence. Her books are available in English, Spanish and Catalan.
More Book Recommendations
Lost in the Clouds is a book that I haven’t read myself, but I love the review from Book Craic and think this would be a very tender book to share with a child going through the loss of a parent. In this story it is the Mother who has passed away and Father and Son go through a plethora of emotions as they learn how to grieve and live again.
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.