When a person has died, sensitive communication with children is vital. It can help them to spend some time with the person’s body. Rather than being upsetting for them, with careful preparation it can actually help a child to understand what has happened.
Breaking the news
- The person closest to the child should tell them as soon as possible. If the death takes place during the night, it is better to wait until the morning when the child wakes up naturally.
- Use clear language they can understand such as ‘dead’ or ‘died’. Terms such as ‘gone’ or ‘gone to sleep’ confuse and frighten children.
- Talking helps a child cope with the changes that are taking place. If we do not tell the truth, using age-appropriate language, they can feel alone and confused, and there is a chance they could hear it from other children which can be very hurtful.
- Explain what being dead means. This helps the child to understand that the deceased’s body has stopped working, and that sadly they cannot come back again.
- Younger children, do not understand that death is permanent and may expect the person to return. Gently support them in learning that the person can’t come back because their body has stopped working.
- Some children find the idea of ‘going to Heaven’ comforting. Others – particularly younger children who don’t understand the concept – find this confusing, and may want to go there too.
- Use play or drawing to help children’s understanding of death. Often the visual speaks louder than words to a child.
Viewing the body
- Let hospital or care staff setting know if you are bringing children in. The staff may help to make the room a little more comfortable and inviting for children.
- It is not always right for a child to see a body. It depends on how the person died and the age and stage of the child. If the body has significant injuries, it may not be helpful for the child to see them.
- Telling children what to expect will help them to decide if they want to do this or not. You might tell them that the person is no longer able to talk or to breathe and that their body will feel cold and look pale and like wax. If children are old enough the decision about seeing the body can be shared with them.
- A trusted adult needs to support a child in the viewing. If possible make this time private for children. Allow the child to say when they want to leave.
- Encourage them to say what they need to say to the person who has died. This is an important part of saying goodbye for children, even though finding the words may be difficult. They may want to leave a note, drawing, or small memento with the person in the coffin.
- A child who does not get the chance to say goodbye may regret it later.
- Holding onto the deceased’s possessions can help children to feel close to them. Such ‘link objects’ maintain a bond with the deceased.
- Questions vary depending on the age, stage and personality of the child. Older children (around 8 years) may be very interested in factual information about the death and what has happened to the body. These may be difficult questions for adults to hear and answer.
Talking to children about cremation and funerals has useful advice.