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Preparing a Child for Bereavement

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Today we have an expert Nuala Harmey from the Irish Hospice Foundation in studio to tell us about how to prepare a child for bereavement

For the past week we have seen pictures of Jade Goody all over the papers and many people will be wondering what she is going to tell her kids about the situation

Over the last few weeks we have seen the extensive press coverage of Jade Goody, who has recently been told that her cancer is terminal. As a young mother of two, the news is particularly devastating for Jade. The question on the lips of many people is 'What is she going to tell her children?'

Talking to children about a possible death

It is always difficult to prepare children or young people for the painful reality that someone they love is gong to die. However, they do have the capacity to deal with even difficult truths. It is lies or half-truths, or even not being told at all, that confuse and upset children and leave them open to needless worry and anxiety.

What do I tell my child?

How you go about helping a child cope with bereavement in general should be age appropriate,

Under 5's:
Age 5-10:
Age 11 and older:

General advice for all ages:

. Plan in advance what you are going to say. If you feel nervous about telling the child it may help to practice saying the words out loud first
. Reassure the child that he or she or other loved ones cannot "catch" the illness and become sick also.
. Be prepared to answer repeated questions.
. Remember that when death comes, despite time and preparation, it will still be a shock.

. Delay or put it off in the hope of finding the perfect formula - there is none. The most important thing is to be open, honest and sensitive to the child's needs.

. Be afraid to show your feelings in front of children and young people, for example, crying and let them know it is okay for them to cry too.
. Use complex medical terms. Use language that is appropriate to the age and understanding of the child
. Be afraid to ask for help. Arrange to speak with a hospital/medical Social Worker who may be able to provide support and information to the family as the illness progresses.


How do children typically react to bad news?

Common reactions

. Children/young people often become tense and anxious, fearing for their own safety and survival

. Many children/young people become fearful of leaving home and refuse to take part in previous activities such as gong to school, playing outside

. Many children/young people become very worried about their surviving parent's/siblings safety. "If it happened to Dad it can happen to all of us" etc

. Many children/young people develop physical symptoms due to increased levels of anxiety - tummy pains, headaches, twitches, nail biting, nervous coughs, etc. This is a physical attempt at expressing internal anxiety

. Internal anxiety can also be expressed in behaviour like locking doors, constant checking whereabouts of parent or siblings, obsessional behaviours like having to perform certain tasks in the same sequence. All these behaviours are an outward expression of internal anxiety. They are an attempt to try to control a world that has temporarily become unsafe and unpredictable.

Tips on how to help them cope:

. Be aware that is normal to experience heightened levels of anxiety following a death and watch out for signs as indicated above.

. Acknowledge the child/young person that they may be feeling anxious and that this is normal.

. Help the child/young person by beginning to arrange accompanied outings in small, short steps initially

. Be honest with children/young people about the possibility of your own death and subsequent arrangements for their care, e.g. "I'm very healthy at present. It's very rare to get the same disease as Dad had"

If the child/young person seems unduly preoccupied by physical or behavioural symptoms e.g. sick tummy, obsessional habits, arrange a check up with your G.P. Again most children/young people will be reassured by this.

The Irish Hospice foundation has a list of books on talking go children about loss and death. These books can be loaned from the Irish Hospice Foundation on 01-679 31 88.