How to Talk to Children About Death

Caroline’s last hours in the hospice were peaceful for her but they were painful for us.

When the phone call finally came to tell us that she’d died, despite the inevitability, the emotion was overwhelming.

Caroline had lived for breast cancer for seven years and died one beautiful autumnal evening, at the age of 39. In the days that followed I thought a lot about her parents, and husband, but I thought also about the children in our families as well as the children at the school where she’d been a much loved teacher.

To help my young daughters through their grief I encouraged them to think about the legacies their Aunt had left in terms of what she had shared, taught and imparted and in what was probably an effort to exorcise the grief, I wrote a story about a teacher who dies.

The Copper Tree developed into a story of a small group of young school children who are encouraged to prepare for, and come to terms with, the death of their teacher, Miss Evans. At the centre of it all I considered the simple needs of young children many of whom would be exploring the feelings of grief and loss for the first time. I realised that a relationship with a teacher mirrored so many relationships in other areas of our lives – from parents, family, wider family, friends and even pets.

I wanted the story to be real and accessible and sought advice from bereaved families, from teachers and bereavement consultants.

One mother, whose son had died from cancer, told me that those with terminal illness, quite often – despite the pain and fear – remain cheerful. They see and appreciate the pure beauty of life and find joy in simple pleasures.

Justine, a young mother of three, who was dying of cancer was critical of the lack of books that featured people as main characters.

Teachers advised against using ambiguous language – saying to a young child we have “lost” someone can lead them to believe that we may find them again and when a friend was told, as a young girl, that her grandmother had died of a stroke, she became then fearful of stroking the cat.

And I avoided whimsical notions of heaven leaving parents, teachers and carers free to consider those elements in their own respective and personal ways .
So with all this is mind The Copper Tree took shape and in the story the children are gently taken through the difficult process. There are light hearted moments and moments of poignancy – just as in life – and following a period of reflection after the death of Miss Evans, they are encouraged to think about all that their teacher has shared with them – or taught them. These memories are then inscribed on to copper leaves and fixed on to a copper tree as a reminder of her lasting legacy.

Mandy Stanley, an illustrator with whom I feel a special bond, brought the words to life with sensitivity and sound judgement. She has been my sounding board and friend and the whole process helped us both to reflect on the death of our fathers and recognise and celebrate, rather than mourn, the extraordinary legacies they left.

My family cherish our memories of Caroline and we are proud of the legacies she has left. The Copper Tree, may not have happened had it not been for her and that, in itself, remains a lasting tribute to her.
We recognise also that, while at times the emotional pain has been difficult to bear, wehave, as Caroline did in the end, found some measure of peace.

What The Experts Say

Patterns of grief: Dan Bordoley at St Gemma’s Hospice in Leeds advises that everyone grieves in their own way, at their own pace with many young children modelling their parents pattern of behaviour. “Young children tend not to understand what is happening and so don’t accept the person has gone. They think they’re coming back. That changes when they get to about 6 years old. Then they begin to understand the person who has died, isn’t coming back. They will have feelings but at that age, can struggle to verbalize them.”

Honesty is key: Dan says that children have a primal sense when something is wrong and honesty and direct real language are the key to communicating with them. Excluding them can make them feel left out and resentful. By talking to them you control the information and keep communication channels open. Being honest also gives the chance to ask questions, and gives adults the chance to explain things.

Clear language: He advises that we be clear with the words we use. “Don’t be afraid to say ‘death’ and ‘dying’ otherwise the child will be confused. If you say someone has ‘fallen asleep’ a child thinks they can be woken, or they can be scared to go to sleep themselves.”

Don’t hide how you feel: Younger children will ask the same question over again. Be patient. Don’t hide your emotions from your child. By showing you are upset, you are giving them permission to show they are upset.

Value of memory as a means of healing: Dr Paul Fitzpatrick, an expert in bereavement counselling from Cardiff University says ‘continuing bonds theory’ is now considered by many to be an integral part of helping those who grieve. Recognising and celebrating the legacies of those who have died is considered far more effective than ignoring, as previous generations have done, the fact that a someone had ever existed.

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