Death is a difficult subject for many adults to even think, let alone talk about.
But when it comes to talking about death to children, there is a whole other layer of difficulty. We often don’t know the best way to explain what it means to die, especially to children who are very young.
What language do we use to describe ‘dying’? How do we prepare children for an inevitable bereavement? How do we break the news of an unexpected death? How can we ensure we’re open and honest without driving them towards fear of themselves or others dying?
Much of our uncertainty may come from the fact that-beyond the biological certainty-many of us don’t feel entirely sure about what happens to a person when they die… so how do we answer our children’s questions if we really don’t feel 100% confident ourselves?
Questions aside, reassuringly, there is much we can do to help by understanding how separation, bereavement, grief and loss affect children at a neurological level.
But before I move on to that, I want to share an experience about my son who, having just turned 5 around this time last year and, experienced his Grandpa becoming very ill and eventually dying of cancer.
I understood how his young mind was likely to respond to this loss, and so I felt secure in having some very open and honest-albeit age appropriate-conversations about what was happening.
But he was the only child at the funeral and I could tell from their faces that many people thought he shouldn’t be there; that he was ‘too young to understand’. Although most likely from a place of care and concern, nobody spoke to him about the loss of his Grandpa; probably afraid of saying the wrong thing, upsetting or scaring him, or just unsure how much he understood. And that may not have been very much… but he did understood that people die.
I’m not saying here that the same approach fits every bereavement; The expected nature of Grandpa’s death meant that my son was somewhat prepared, and that there were no overt outpourings of grief. They had also not shared an especially close bond, so he didn’t feel Grandpa’s loss as profoundly as he otherwise might.
But, even so, with sensitive support, those closest to my son somewhat normalised death for him. We drove past a cemetery last week and, with the ease of asking about going to the shop, he asked if this was where people get buried when they die.
Challenging as bereavement is, whether our child has lost a significant person or a beloved pet, don’t we want them to feel able to ask those big, scary questions?
It can help enormously to understand how young, developing brains respond to grief, and the uncomfortable truth is that profound loss can create a neurobiological reaction similar to opioid withdrawal, meaning there is no easy way through. I’m not saying ‘don’t try’, but ‘being positive’ or ‘distraction techniques’ may have limited success in those early days.
A more comfortable truth is that a child’s ‘thinking brain’ (AKA the neo-cortex) develops in direct response to their environment, meaning that; although in the aftermath of bereavement, a child’s brain hasn’t yet laid down neural pathways to deal with this change; we can influence how their brains adapt to changes like death.
Counter-intuitive as it may feel, preparing a child for bereavement ultimately helps to establish these neural connections before the loss happens, equipping their brains to manage better when it does.
Inevitably, a sudden death can affect a child much more profoundly than an expected death; Their brains literally don’t have any pathways to rely on, and consequently they may need much more time and help to adjust. Either way, the ‘bereaved brain’ does not rewire itself in a hurry.
However, when we help our children to process their experience; accept whatever they do or don’t feel and hold space for their grief with empathy, openness, and patience; we slowly, but surely, begin to rebuild strength in these fragile young brains.
We talk about grief in the context of endings, naturally, but seldom do we frame death as a beginning.
It’s not to suggest that the person who has died is being erased, forgotten about, or minimised, but there is inevitably something new for those children who are moving through, and on, from grief.
So whether we are parents, friends, professionals and educators, we have an opportunity to support our children; to manage endings well, and beginnings well, as well…
Need to know more about supporting the wellbeing of the children you either live or work with?
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