Supporting children after the death of a parent or sibling isn’t easy, but Winston’s Wish can help, as Susie Gallagher explains…
When asked why children might grow up in one parent families, most people would first think of family breakdown or instability. Few people will think that a child may only have one parent because the other parent has died.
Yet, every hour in the UK, around four children under 18 are bereaved of a parent: that’s at least 110 bereaved children a day, more than 40,000 bereaved children a year. Many more will experience the death of siblings, grandparents and friends. While the experience of being bereaved in childhood is more common than many realise, how to support bereaved children is rarely mentioned in parenting manuals.
This is where the experience and expertise of funeral directors and others who encounter a grieving family can be so immensely valuable, both in offering direct support and also in signposting to services that offer guidance to grieving families. This may be around involving and including children in funerals and other memorials or, more broadly, about supporting children’s grief now and in the future.
At Winston’s Wish, we support children and young people when someone important to them dies. We are very aware of and appreciate the crucial and valued role funeral directors play in sensitively guiding families through what happens after someone has died. We see our role may come to us after contact with their funeral director and we have the space and time to use our knowledge and experience to explore with parents and carers their individual situations and their individual children.
How to talk to children about a death
Parents may feel unprepared to know how best to help their child when someone dies and may feel anxious about talking to children about death and about funerals. However, grieving children tell us that they want people around them to talk about what has happened and they want their questions answered.
Adults may be tempted to use euphemisms when explaining death to children. However, expressions such as ‘we’ve lost your father’ (why aren’t you looking for him?), ‘your Gran passed in her sleep’ (I’m not risking going to bed ever again), ‘your Mum is the brightest star’ (no, that’s Polaris) confuse children.
Children can begin to understand when adults use simple, straightforward and honest explanations with such words as ‘died’ and ‘dead’ – new words for this new situation. Explaining that a person’s body had stopped working makes sense to children.
Our Helpline team helps families find the words that are appropriate for different age-groups and levels of understanding to describe different causes of death (for example, those that have been expected or those that are sudden, including talking about a death by suicide or violence).
How children might participate in what happens after someone dies
We are often asked for our guidance in thinking through whether and how to involve children in the practices that happen after someone has died. We can help parents to think about various aspects of ‘saying goodbye’ such as:
- Viewing the body – and how to prepare children for this
- Whether children will attend the funeral – and how to prepare them for what happens there
- How to involve children in any service or faith practice
- Alternative memorials or ways of marking what has happened (if attendance is not possible for whatever reason, including because of COVID-19 restrictions)
- Ideas for capturing memories at the funeral and afterwards
This is how we might help parents talk about the funeral:
To help a child or young person decide whether or not to attend a funeral, it helps for them to have clear information about what will happen, who will be there, how people may react and whether the funeral will involve a burial or a cremation.
Here are some examples of what you might say:
‘After someone dies, we have a special service called a funeral. A funeral is a chance for people to say goodbye to the person who has died. It’s also a time for people to be with the family of the person and show them their support.
‘The service is usually held in a special place (for example: church, chapel, synagogue, mosque, or natural burial ground). Usually, there is some music, there are some prayers, and people say what they remember about the person who has died.’
‘On Thursday, we’re having Dad’s funeral. His body will be there in a special box called a coffin and afterwards, his body in the coffin will be buried or cremated. Many people will be there – all of our family and so many of our friends and Dad’s colleagues. People will be upset because it is so very sad that Dad has died but they will also be talking about their memories of him.’
What helps grieving children In our work we highlight the things that make a difference to bereaved children (see below). Our team can talk with families about their children’s individual responses after someone dies, recognising that every grief is as unique as a fingerprint.
We suggest and explore helpful ways of supporting children’s grieving, including acknowledging what has happened and encouraging the safe expression of feelings and thoughts.
We provide and recommend useful resources and help families find ways of talking about and remembering the person who has died.
- Bereavement support: grieving children need to receive support (from family, their school and from others)
- Explanations and information: about what has happened, is happening and will happen
- Reassurance: that they are safe and loved
- Expressing their feelings and thoughts: help to find safe ways to share their thoughts and let out some feelings
- Acknowledgment: of their loss and the impact on their life
- Voice in important decisions: being involved and feeling included
- Encouragement to remember: help to remember and know stories about the person who has died
- Memorials and ‘rituals’: to mark key days
- Established everyday routines: alongside a bit of flexibility and chances to have fun
- Not to blame: and not responsible for the death
- Talking and communicating as a family: sharing and discussing openly
How we can help
The support Winston’s Wish can offer to children, young people and their families may start with such conversations but it also continues into the future, as children understand more about what has happened and the effect this death will have on their lives and their family, and as their reactions and responses change with age.
Our work is based on our belief that there is a future with hope for children who are bereaved and that timely and appropriate support, information and guidance can make a difference. Despite experiencing such loss and change in childhood, with understanding, support and guidance these children can go on to lead full and flourishing lives.