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How to Talk to Children About Loss
Episode 6822nd September 2022 • How Not to Screw Up Your Kids • Dr Maryhan
00:00:00 00:27:11

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Whilst the release of this episode is immediately after the death Queen Elizabeth II, the approach I suggest is intended to cover any situation where a child comes into contact with the death of someone - whether that’s a direct relative, a friend, neighbour, public figure etc. 

For some the current world event may mean you are talking about death for the very first time and your child might be really still quite young, for others the Queen’s death might be bringing up old sadness for a loved one who has already died, others might have people in their lives who are currently unwell, or your children are asking questions about your own longevity. 

I’ll talk you through the eight principles to be mindful of when starting, and maintaining those conversations about death.    


Here are the highlights: 

(00:33) The Queen’s death may prompt difficult questions 

(03:02) Be honest, clear and direct 

(05:54) Children’s biggest fear is abandonment 

(10:34) Crying make us human 

(14:12) Communication is key 

(17:22) We don’t always have the perfect answer 

(20:27) There’s no one size fits all 

(23:22) We want our children to know the facts 

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Hello, and welcome to the how not screw up your kids' podcast. So pour yourself a cup. Find a Comy seat and enjoy the conversation. This is episode 68 and in today's how to talk to children about loss. I'm gonna share my best practices on how we start and continue conversations with our children about death.

Now, the timing of the recording of this podcast episode. After the death of queen Elizabeth. I second. So I will make some reference to this historic event. However, the principles and the strategies I'm gonna talk you through are intended to cover any situation where our children come into contact with the death of someone, whether that's a direct.

A friend, a neighbor, a public figure, whatever it may be now for some of you, the historic current world events may have meant you are talking about death for the very first time and your child might be really still quite young for others. The Queen's death might be bringing up some old sadnesses for a loved one who has already died whilst for others still, they might have people in their lives who are currently UN.

Or the Queen's death might bring up questions and conversations from your children about your own longevity or their own. What's key to remember, I think in terms of just providing some sort of. Based context is that death affects us and our children in very different ways. So we're not going to see one standard response, but I think by talking through, and this week, I'm talking through seven different sort of notes as such, is that it's just being aware of these things.

And just also being aware in that context that we are not gonna have a standard response. Like I'm, I'm not gonna be able to say to you, all children are going to do this because they don't. In the same ways, not all adults do X or Y. So it's just being prepared for that. So I'm gonna talk you through seven.

So let's start with the first one. It is have the conversation. I know for a lot of people, the whole notion of talking to children about death and loss can feel really difficult. And sometimes we. Avoid it or leave it for a really long time before we have that conversation. But what I say and what I would really urge you to do is to have the conversation and to do it.

As soon as is possible, cuz that's really, really important is that we have those conversations with our children. Uh, it doesn't matter how old they are. We can sort of fine tune and adapt and modify the language that we use and how much information that we give them. But we need to start with a conversation.

So that's number one is we got to have that conversation. Number two is we need to be honest. And we need to be clear. So let's not use euphemisms such as maybe they went to sleep or they've passed away or they've crossed over whatever it is that we might say quite often, we say those things because we are feeling, we're just finding a little bit difficult to use the word death and dying and dead, but we really must avoid these euphemisms.

And actually instead use the words. Died research has shown that it actually helps children with the grieving process better than these, you know, they've passed away or they've crossed over because it's more concrete. Children need to know that absolute. What has happened. And what had obviously has come up pre on previous episodes is that if we don't tell children the concrete truth, if we're not honest, and if we're not clear and there's any form of ambiguity there, then children fill in the blanks themselves.

And more often than not the blanks that they fill. Are really not helpful for them at all. Don't help them with any form of process. So we really need to be honest and clear with our children as to what has happened and avoid some of these things that we say that if we're being really honest, makes it a little bit easier for us to say, rather than necessarily any easier for our children to understand, because it doesn't mean anything to them.

We need to talk about that. It's definitive. It's fi. You know, finite, it has happened. It's concrete. There's no going back. And we are very clear about that. And what I would say is if you are. Struggling with being honest and being clear about that, just reflect for a moment about why, why am I finding it really difficult to have to say this?

What am I projecting onto my child that I'm anticipating their feeling that they may not be feeling and is actually much more about me? Do I feel that the, the language that I'm using. Just feels uncomfortable. And if it does then practice, you know, we talk a lot. Well, I talk a lot about encouraging children when we're talking about confidence about role playing.

Practice in front of the mirror. If you have to practice with a friend having this conversation and explaining it to your child, because it is really important that we use that language appropriately, that we're honest, and that we're clear. So the strategies we've covered so far are we just need to have that conversation and have that conversation promptly.

And not avoid it. Be honest and clear and make sure that we use the correct language that people ha that this person has died, that they are dead. That that is concrete. And that's finite rather than slipping into this sort of subtlety of thinking that we're actually telling them. But we're not really the third one is.

Really it's of making our children aware of all of the people who are currently in their lives. And this is part of that reassurance process. Children's biggest fear. One of the things that, that, which is one of the reasons why they struggle with this sort of concept is that their biggest fear is of being abandoned.

that's a really huge worry for them. So reminding children that there are lots of people around them who love and care for them be that grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, what we're actually doing is we're reminding them that whilst somebody has died and is no longer going to be there and no longer going to be an active part in their everyday life.

What we're doing is reminding them that they're not alone. That actually that there is this whole tribe of people. There's this whole village of people that are still there and still around them that they can rely on. And whether that is because we are talking specifically about the death of a really close relative or friend, or whether.

The conversation around death has been triggered by somebody in the high profile or in a public perspective, or even the parent or the grandparent or the aunt or the uncle of a friend. So they're not necessarily directly impacting our children's lives, but it's raised that whole concept of death. And what we usually find is that children lead this slightly rose tinted life.

A particular sort of developmental stage for them. It is not age specific. So for some children, this concept that the world can have bad things happen, can happen to children around five. It might be that it doesn't happen till seven or eight. You know, that I'm a big believer in not necessarily talking about age.

Specific milestones, but development specific milestones. So at some point your child will shift away from viewing the world as this wonderful, hugely safe bubble that nothing bad goes wrong to suddenly understanding that sometimes. Sad things happen and that things happen to people and that's a normal part of their development.

We're not trying to protect them from that because it's really important that they understand that. And so it's around this sort of time that children are going to have these abandonment fears and that it may be that even there isn't the death of someone before it creates an element of anxiety for your child, about the notion that they may be abandoned, if something was to happen to you.

um, or your partner or that something might happen to them. So it's really important that when we're talking about death or when our children talk to us about death, that may not be triggered by anybody having died is that we remind is that, you know, we still follow the same principles. We have the conversation, we are honest and clear with.

around. Not only if someone has died, but being honest and clear that at some point we are all going to die and that large proportion of, of us will live to a reasonably good and long and healthy life, but that sometimes people pass and sometimes people die before their time and that they may have a serious illness or that there may be an accident.

So it's making sure that we have that. But always when our children have that, those questions around death is being able to also make them aware of right now. And in the present moment who is around them, who surrounds them, who is there that is currently supporting and is there for them. So when they potentially have those questions around what might happen to.

Should anything happen to us is that we're able to remind them that whilst it would be really sad. And of course it would be devastating and upsetting is that actually it isn't whilst we are their parents and we are there or their grandparents or their uncles, or, or. Whatever the context might be that you're having the conversation is that there are all these other people who are around them who love and care for them and who are ever present that will continue to be there.

So those are the first three. So it's making sure that we have that conversation and we don't avoid it, that we are honest. And we are clear that we make them aware of all the people who are currently in their lives as a way of reassuring them and reminding them of these people being present. the fourth one is, and I should have said actually at the beginning, these are in no particular order.

Some of them made sense to put first, like have the conversation and be honest, but the others are not necessary in any specific order. And you may not even need to use all these seven. It depends on the situation, but don't, you know, the fourth one is don't worry if you cry. It makes you human. You are not expected to be immune from emotion.

And I certainly in terms of what's happened recently with the death of the queen, is that a lot of people have been very moved and have found themselves. Incredibly emotional, having not expected to be that way at all. Maybe they've not been royalists. Maybe they've not even really been massively concerned about the Royal family, but have found that they've become quite upset by it.

So whether you are listening to this podcast episode, specifically as in response to what's happened recently, or at some other point. Reflecting on it with a specific bereavement and a death that you need to have that conversation with your children around is please, don't worry. If you cry, that's normal, your upset, your emotion, your tears are not going to traumatize your child.

They're going to make you human. Your child needs to know that it's okay to cry, but also your child needs to understand that it's okay not to cry, that we all experience. Death and bereavement and grief in different ways. And we will go all go through different periods of time where we are going to feel slightly different.

So please don't feel I can't have that conversation with my child. Cause I'm just so fragile at the moment. I don't think I can get the words out. That's absolutely fine. I mean, clearly we want to be composed enough to be able to begin that conversation, but if we find ourselves crying and we have to say to our child, I just need to take a moment.

then that's okay too. We're not looking for our children to console us and to make things better for us through our own grief, but we are also want to make our children aware that it is absolutely normal to feel upset and to cry, but equally it's absolutely normal to maybe not. Cry in that specific time.

So please don't get too caught up in this feeling that you are going to somehow traumatize your child if you cry. So don't worry about sharing and expressing your own emotions. I think sometimes when we try and hold onto it, that's also not helpful for our child who may want to cry themselves, who may be grieving in a very different way to.

But doesn't necessarily feel that they're able to express it because we are modeling this heroic sort of being able to kind of keep going and, you know, modeling through, which is not necessarily. Appropriate in that regard. So the first four let's recap is we need to have that conversation. Let's not avoid having that conversation and let's make it timely.

Children are acutely aware that something is up. And if we don't have that conversation soon, and we're having whispers behind closed doors, that doesn't help children either. Remember, we don't fill in the gaps for our children. If we're not clear and honest, our children make up their own stories and their own narratives in their head, which are factually inaccurate and can cause more potential damage than us having those conversations in a slightly blunt way.

So make sure we have that conversations. We need to make sure that we're honest and clear. We need, um, to make our children aware that they are, you know, who is currently in their lives so we can reassure their natural tendency and worry about abandonment. And that is normal. That isn't something that you have done that has traumatized your child.

It is normal for children to worry about that. And let's not worry about expressing our own emotions and how that might affect our children. So those are the first four. What are the next three? The fifth one I would say is I would avoid having a big chat. The sort of, I guess, possibly how things were communicated when we were younger.

Certainly remember those sort of big chats we need to have a conversation about, because I think the risk with that is that your child becomes overwhelmed. It's almost like they kind of get hit by this wave of information. Children. We know can't process lots of information at the same time, they need to be given information little and often because that net allows them to process the information.

Children will process in their own way and in their own time, if you have. More than one child, they will process information at a different rate and they will process and ask questions in different ways. So avoids the big conversation, but instead begin to give them a general overview. So we need to have that conversation and be honest that someone has died.

and communicate that and give them some general information about what might have happened and what they need to know about what might be happening next. So you're giving them that broad brush, ask them if they have any questions at that point, and also be clear to say to them that they're gonna process it in slightly different ways.

And whilst maybe your child hasn't got any questions or they ask a particular question is that they might have questions at other time. So it's making sure that we tell them things initially. But we then regularly check in. So, you know, we spoke yesterday about the fact that so-and-so's died. Um, and I know that that was a lot of information to take at the time.

And you asked me about this and I explained that. I'm just wondering whether you've got any more questions. How are you feeling about that? Do you want to ask me anything so that you are able to kind of give them that little bit more information because children will ask question. at very different rates and different paces.

Some children won't ask very much at all. Some you can see that they're processing, but it just takes them a little time and obviously be, be aware that the questions that they're going to ask you may feel slightly obscure or may be slightly unusual, but that's how they're processing that information.

So, no. Try and avoid getting caught up in that. Oh, goodness me. You don't need to worry about that. Or that's a really silly question. Or, and again, it's not because we're trying to diminish or belittle, but sometimes we find the awkwardness of the question that we respond in a way. that is a knee jerk reaction to how we are feeling.

So if you do, it is not the end of the world, you have not traumatized your child. Go back to it. Just say, I just, you know, thinking about that question, you just asked me and the way that I replied to it really wasn't the best way for me to try and explain things to you. I'm sorry. I think at the time I probably felt a little bit outta balance and didn't really know how.

To respond to it and maybe I found it upsetting. So I I've sort of sat with it a little bit and I wanted to talk to you about it a little bit more. So let's not be afraid. We're not going to be perfect in this situation. We're going through our own grief, our own bereavement, our own loss, and we're processing things.

We're going through that information ourselves. We've got our questions. We've got those emotions. So we're not always going to make. You know, the most perfect, whatever perfect is in that particular situation. So let's not worry too much about that, but what's really important is that we don't have a big chat.

We talk little and often if we feel that we've not responded to something in a particular way that we, we think has shows us that we've shown up in our best light, then let's go back to it and, and make a comment, um, and redo it, you know, rewind and rework. So let's avoid that big chat. Number six is expect the unexpected children are going to respond in very, very different ways, much in the same ways we will.

And that they are probably going to ask some pretty unusual questions. Or they may not, you know, children might catch you unawares and start asking questions about what happens, you know, after they've died, maybe they'll ask about what happens. You know, if you've got someone dear that's being cremated, or maybe they'll ask some really unusual question about what happens with the coffin and does it rotten what happens to worms getting in or whatever it might be.

You'll be, it'll be really surprising. So if. Set that intention that you are expecting the unexpected, then I think that's really key. And, and children will kind of ask all sorts of different questions. They might ask about your own longevity. What does that mean about you and what happens to you and where will they go?

And maybe they've had some really unusual dreams as a result. Of the conversation around death, but we just need to expect that unexpected and the way that their anxieties and their fears and anxieties and fears. We're not talking about that your child has suddenly become anxious, but it is normal to feel nervous, to feel overwhelmed, to have a sense of my goodness, me, what does this mean to me?

What happens if I'm then abandoned and you die and maybe, you know, I've had conversations with children who. Had bereavements and experienced loss and death and their minds can go down to sort of avenues of, well, you know, you've, you've reassured me that I've got all these other people in my life. What happens if there's a whole CATA, you know, catastrophe and disaster and everybody who I love suddenly.

Something awful happens and they all die and I'm left on my own. So expect the unexpected. Um, that might be in terms of the questions they ask that might be about behavior children, don't all express loss and bereavement and grief in the same way. Some may well have lots of tears and have lots of questions.

Some might just get really. Angry might be really irritable, may be really challenging in their behavior with you may push boundaries and say to you that they're not upset and there thank goodness good riddens to that person or whatever it might be that might shock you, but expect the unexpected because that's super key because we're not all going to behave in the same way.

There isn't one size that fits all in terms of bereavement. So expect the unexpected. And the final one that I would. Specifically here is about, don't expect to have all of the answers. I think sometimes, maybe that's one of the reasons why we avoid having the conversation in the first place is that we feel we've got to have all of the information.

Maybe we don't know if that relative that has died is going to be cremated or there's going to be a funeral. Maybe we don't know how long things are gonna be. Maybe we don't know how they died or what happened or what's going to happen next. And that's absolutely fine to say to our children. Do you know what?

I don't know. Be willing to admit you don't know. And where appropriate look to find the answers together with your child. Some of it may well. You know, going back to our, expect the unexpected, our children might ask a question that we don't actually understand ourselves. We don't really know and seems to be a perfectly reasonable question and that you might say, well, do you know what?

I don't know, but maybe we can look and find out together. Maybe this is something we can research together so that we understand. So. It's do, please, please. Don't expect to have all of the answers and be willing to say, do you know what right now? I don't know. And I know how that might be worrying you because I know maybe you've got a child who likes to know things who struggles with the uncertainty.

Maybe you struggle with uncertainty and maybe your. When you are, you know, you are en ending up having this big conversation because you have a difficulty with uncertainty. So you are trying to give your child all the information because you are thinking they need to know everything, but just, you know, don't expect to have all of the answers be prepared to say, I don't know.

And I don't know when I am going to know, or I don't know. Let's look and see if we can work this out together, or I don't know. I'm gonna come back to you. That's something that I hadn't even considered. That I'm gonna look into and I'm gonna have those conversations. And I think what I would add as a final point, and then I'll just recap those seven again, is that just be honest and having those conversations and really try and avoid now, sometimes we need to have conversations.

Out of earshot of our children. And we need to talk through some specific things, but just make sure that you are mindful. Do I need to have this conversation in a whispered tone that my child might overhear? Is this something that I could actually share with them? and if it isn't something that I can share with them, how can I have this conversation in a different way where my child doesn't feel that there are other conversations happening that I'm, that they're not privy to?

Because again, this whole notion of if children don't have all of the information they need, they'll fill in the blanks. If they feel that there are lots of conversations being had and whispered, and things are being kept from them, they will try and create their own narrative or their own understanding, which ISN.

Helpful to them at all. We want children to know the facts from us as best as we can tell them. And sometimes there are pieces of information that is not appropriate for our children to know, but then think through, do I need to have this whispered conversation with this person right now? And if I do, are there better ways?

Are there better locations for me to have this conversation so that my child doesn't feel like that there's things that are happening and there's information that they're not necessarily privy to? So that's a really important thing that we need to get into context too. So let me recap the seven, the first is that we need to have the conversation and we need to have it as quickly.

As is possible. The second is we need to be honest and clear. Let's avoid these subtle euphemisms that we use about them going to sleep or crossing over that make things easier for us. Let's be super concrete with our children. Let's use the word dead. And died so that our children know, and that they can help them with that grieving process.

The third one is making our children aware of all the people who are currently in their lives because children's big, biggest fear is uncertainty. It is that abandonment. So we want to reassure them that whilst this really important person in their life has died. There are all of these other people that are still there still showing up and still present in their lives.

Don't worry. If you cry or if you show your emotions, that's absolutely fine. It makes you human. Don't try and kind of hide that. Avoid the big chat, give information little and often. So you avoid overwhelm, expect the unexpected and don't expect to have all of the answers, be willing to say you don't know and wear appropriate.

Look to find answers together with your child. And I've just thought of. Eighth one. I can't believe I didn't write this down in my notes to remember, but what I would also say is encourage your child to celebrate the life of the person that they have lost and that they shouldn't feel uncomfortable about sharing happy memories, because whilst we've lost that person and they're no longer in our physically present in our lives, the impact that that person has had on our.

Is profound. And we want to be able to celebrate that as well as talking about our happy memories. So let's make sure that we do that. So that's a last minute addition from me. So I forgot to say that. And also be aware that your child might not be ready to kind of have that celebration. Those share those happy memories, but that doesn't stop you from doing it.

We mustn't feel that because we've lost somebody and somebody's died that suddenly we need to be very careful about mentioning them at all for fear or upsetting our children, because it's important that we do. So in my give this week, it's going to be these top eight strategies. Now that I've remembered that last one in a checklist.

I'm gonna give you some space to reflect it may well be that you don't necessarily need the reflection for this particular resource. But the idea is that it's will serve as a reminder. And whilst you may not necessarily need it right now, you can come back to it as a tool to practically use. So as usual, please head over to my free resource library.

Dr. Mary, where you'll find the link to download the resource. All you need to do is pop in your email address and you'll get instant access. Not only to this week's resource, but all the other resources across all my other podcast episodes, they're all free. And as ever, if you have enjoyed this episode, I would love it.

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