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Family Matters With Grainne Ryan; Helping A Child Cope With Bereavement

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

This week, Grainne will be discussing how to broach the subject of death with a child.

Grainne Ryan - Parenting Coach
Presenter of Baby on Board Series 2. Grainne is a public health nurse and midwife and mother of three children. Areas of interest child development, parenting issues, adolescent development and post natal depression and works as a public health nurse in Ennis Co. Clare.

Is it wise to bring up the subject of death before it has happened to someone close to the family? If so how would you do this?
At some time your child will be faced with a loss or death and they will need help understanding what happened, why it happened and their feelings about it.

Grainne's advice - before a tragedy forces you, bring up the topic in a neutral way. There are plenty of opportunities to speak about death

- Autumn - leaves falling from the trees
- A lifeless animal on the road
- Mufasa, in the Lion King
- A family pet

How much they understand, how it affects them, and, how you talk about it depends greatly on their age and level of emotional development and life experience. School age children7-9 may understand that death is permanent; a younger child may believe that the death is temporary. Pre-schooler's may see it more "magical" in line with fairy tales.

It is normal for children to be curious about death, even if he hasn't yet lost a loved one. In fact, less emotionally fraught times are good opportunities for laying groundwork what will help; your child cope when he does loose some. Answer his questions about death, and don't be afraid to read stories about children whose pets or grandparents die. Give brief, uncomplicated answers to question that is age appropriate.

If you know bereavement is imminent and you are very upset how should you discuss this with your child?
Grieving is an important part of healing, for both children and adults. Try and not frighten your child with excessive grief, but don't make the subject off limits. Explain that Granny is very sick. It is a big sickness, not like having a cold. Young children need help to understand that there are different types of sickness, 'little' and 'big' sicknesses. Otherwise they may fear that all illness results in death.

Your explanation will also depend on the questions they ask. Then you need to tell them that you are upset because you miss someone, there are a lot of ways people deal with loss explain, crying, alone time, and need for hugs. Your child is always aware of changes in your mood, and he'll be even more worried if he senses that something is wrong and you're trying to hide it.

While it may be necessary for children to spend some time being cared for by family or friends, it is reassuring for them to spend as much time as possible at home.
Don't try to be perfect. Do your best to guide your child through the difficult times. Its all right to cry in front of your child and you can't expect yourself to answer every question perfectly the first time. Ask for help from friends and relatives and remember that the more you help yourself cope, the better you'll be able to help your child cope, both now and later.

Bereavement of any sort is traumatic on a family but communicating what is happening to your child can be difficult, what mistakes can parents make at this time?
Years ago, children were never involved issues around death and dying. They were often sent to a relative while the event was happening and death was a taboo subject somewhat like sex. This was probably overprotecting children who were never then exposed to the whole process. So they would have a greater difficulty in coping with loss.

It is important to talk to your child about the life cycle events, When explaining death take your cues from your child as to what he wants or is ready to hear. Give a simple explanation and ask if he has any questions? What I find very helpful is if you ask the child what he thinks? So where do YOU think Granny is now? This will lead your answer.
Involve them in the memorial service if old enough - prepare in advance for what is going to happen.

What type of descriptions / words should you avoid when discussing death?
Common adult phrases for death - "resting in peace, "in eternal sleep" - are confusing for a child, so don't say that Granny is "sleeping or "has gone away. Your 6 year old may worry that going to bed at night means he'll die, too, or that if you leave for the office you won't come back. State the reasons for the death as simply as possible. Granny was very, very old and her body couldn't work any more.

Outline 5 guidelines parents should remember when they are helping a child understand bereavement:

1. Be available and ready to listen. Stay calm and try keep your emotions in check when talking with your child. It is ok to cry and explain this to your child.

2. Be especially loving and supportive, remember the importance of touch. Provide physical reassurance with lots of hugging, cuddling and touching. This helps reassure children.

3. Remember that children may grieve differently to adults, one minute very sad and then out playing with pals.

4. Answer questions about death simply and honestly.

5. Give you child different ways of expressing his or her loss, grief and sadness - verbal, written, creative. Give the child choices in how to remember the person or pet who has died. Allow to participate in the family rituals if he/she wants to go.

6. Explain the family's religious or spiritual beliefs about death in simple terms.

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Bereavemnet Counselling Service 01 839 1766