Talking about what's happened
In June, schoolchildren across the UK celebrated the Queen’s 70th year on the throne. Just three months on summer’s barely over, and those same children are grappling with news that she’s died. It's a subject that needs to be discussed.
For us, this tragedy hits close to home. The Queen was Patron of Save the Children UK from 1952 to 2017.
Whether you’ve got a template in place, or it’s the first time you’ve approached death with a child, these seven tips should help guide the conversation.
1. Have the conversation
If you don’t have the conversation, someone else will. It's better coming from you. Make time to talk about the Queen’s death, and what it means, with your child.
2. Literally, this is what happened...
Even in adulthood, we use ambiguous language to talk about death. But unclear language can confuse children, and excite anxiety. Avoid terms that are open to interpretation, like ‘passing away’, ‘gone to sleep’, or ‘up with the angels’. Help children to understand what's happened by using literal words: 'death’, ‘dead’, or ‘dying’.
3. Use clear and simple language
It will be the first experience of death for many youngsters. It might feel frightening. Or confusing. How do you explain what ‘death’ is? Use examples that they can relate to, and be as clear and factual as possible. Keep it simple and explain it is a natural, expected event.
For example, ‘Now we are alive, we can move and talk. We are breathing and our hearts are beating. When we are dead we don’t talk or move. We don’t feel pain any more.We don’t get sick any more.’ Showing that things like sickness also end with death, can make it feel less scary for children.
4. Show not tell
Younger children might need a visual cue to understand. Show what you mean with examples from nature. Why not discuss the difference between a bug that’s alive, and a bug that’s dead? If that’s not sticking, compare fallen leaves to a treetop canopy, next time you’re in the playground. Each culture has its own special belief about what happens to us when we die.
Whatever beliefs you hold, using real life examples that are easy to relate to, will simplify death as a concept.
5. Reassure children
Learning about death could lead to probing questions. Are they going to die soon? Are you going to die soon? Where will they live if you die? Children are inquisitive. This is natural. Comfort your child without making false promises. Saying things like, ‘We’re both healthy, and next year we’re going to do x and y’, will reassure them of the future.
6. Help them process their feelings
As adults, we eulogise the dead in condolence books, at funeral wakes, and sharing long-held memories. Children feel deeply, but don’t have these tools at their disposal. Crucially, there’s no ‘normal’ response to death. They might feel upset, curious, apathetic, or confused. All emotional responses are legitimate.
Create activities that help them process how they’re feeling. This could be drawing a picture of the Queen, writing a story about her life, or imagining the adventures she might have been on.
For further advice on how to help children process bereavement please visit the Childhood Bereavement Hub