confusing time  | 

Psychotherapist David Kavanagh explains how to support children through grief and loss

'It’s important not to dismiss your child’s feelings, let them be upset’

Individually explain to children of different ages the concept of death

Denise Smith

It is natural to feel pain and heartache over the death of a loved one, but for children who are facing a loss for the first time, it can be a confusing and upsetting time.

David Kavanagh of Avalon Relationships Consultants explains how you can support your children through the grieving process and make death a normal part of the conversation with some expert advice.

  • Mental capacity

“I think the first thing parents need to do is it to identify the child’s mental capacity. Age is one thing, but their mental capacity to understand concepts is another thing,” explains the leading family therapist.

“Children have varying different levels of comprehension of understanding life and such events as death. If you are talking to children and they are of different ages, you do need to speak to them individually it wouldn’t be fair to tell a twelve-year-old the same information as a five-year-old,” says David.

David Kavanagh

  • Before you break the sad news

“Is it someone the child has a relationship with? That is going to make a difference too in terms of how the child is going to receive the information.

“The most common time a child will hear about death is the passing of a grandparent and that can be very distressing. They’ve had a relationship with that person and they have loved spending time with that person and it’s probably the first time children experience a sense of grief and loss.

“I think it is important that children are given as much hope as possible that could be religious or spiritual.

“We do know that it is better for human beings to know that there is a higher purpose and that there is something beyond ourselves.

“Catholic or Christian you might say heaven, but if you are of another religion you might use some other description of an afterlife

“It would be very comforting for children to hear that your granny has died and what that means ie, she is no longer on earth with us but she is gone to a very special place where people go when they die but her spirit and her soul will always be around and we can still talk to her.”

  • Acknowledge the child’s grief

“It is important not to dismiss your child’s feelings. Often parents can say, ‘granny is gone to a better place so there’s no need to cry,’ but that doesn’t help a child at all.

“Let them be upset, don’t minimise or distract them. If death is a new concept then language is important.

“Saying someone has gone asleep or to live with the stars will only serve to confuse the child.”

  • Concept of death

By introducing the concept of death at an early age, children will have a better understanding when they are faced with the loss of a loved one.

“You can introduce your child to the concept of death with nature or even family pets.

“It is terrifying but death is universal so the sooner children understand the concept before it actually happens to them then it is easier for them to make sense of it as a natural thing.

“You can ask children questions like, ‘will our pet Doug live forever?’ If there response is, ‘Well, no,’ ask them, ‘then what do we call that when our dog isn’t around anymore?’

“See what language they have for it."

  • Timing is important

“Timing is also important, if your child is in a low mood, if they are very tired or not in a great space then what you have to say will have a bigger impact on them. If a child is stressed or feeling anxious, they are not going to process what you are telling them very well.”

  • Funeral setting

“Sometimes children go to funerals nd play and I think that is normal, they should be given space and I don’t think it is normal for them to be forced to sit down on a hard wooden bench and to be made look unhappy because that is what their religious expectation might be. The key is to listen to their questions and to provide constant reassurance.”

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