“Nearly everybody who contacts us at The Irish Childhood Bereavement Network, whether they are professionals or parents, starts by asking: Can you recommend some counseling for a bereaved child? I always just say: Talk me through your concerns.
They would then list their concerns and, 9 times out of 10, they would describe behaviors that are totally normal for a child who doesn’t understand what is happening. For very young children – let’s say up to a 5-year-old – their brain isn’t developed enough to understand that when somebody dies, they don’t feel cold or hungry. They don’t understand that death is final.
All those things WE take for granted, but with children, you need to break this down and explain it to them. If you don’t, there is a probability that they will be confused. I had a case where a child lost a baby brother and he kept asking questions like: Who is minding my little brother now? Is somebody keeping him warm? Is somebody feeding him? At that age, they don’t understand, so you have to break it down, even if that seems obvious.
It can seem counterintuitive because we think we should be protecting our children from the reality of what death means. Parents often try to soften it by saying things like: He is in a better place now, He is at peace, or He is with the angels. All these sayings confuse them even more. Children often respond to these by saying things like: If Daddy could go to this better place, why can’t I go there with him too?
You need to be quite honest and concrete with children and people may think it’s quite harsh but actually, it’s much easier for them to comprehend. Most of the time not knowing or not understanding can lead to anxiety. Also, talking about grief is not a once-off conversation done perfectly. This should be a topic that is being discussed as they require, as they mature. What they can absorb when they are five is different from what they can understand when they are 10 or 15. Many people confuse this with regression, but it’s actually quite normal. They are revisiting what happened at a new level of understanding.
We always say if a child asks a question, they are ready for the answer. So, give them an honest answer. If you are not sure how to answer just say: That’s a great question, let me think about the answer and I’ll get back to you on it later today. Then, give us a call and we help you with the best answer.
Grief for children is devastating, confusing, often lonely and heartbreaking for parents and family who are also grieving. While it’s completely natural to worry and want to protect children and teenagers, the best thing to do is give them age-appropriate information about a death.”
Maura’s interview is part of a series of seven interviews by Humans of Dublin with individuals who are either beneficiaries of or contributors to the work of IHF.