December 2nd marked the start of National Grief Awareness Week, which shines a spotlight on all aspects of grief and loss across the UK, from providing access to a range of tailored bereavement support to helping us better understand how to help those around us who are grieving. Conversations around grief can often feel taboo and difficult to handle, but undoubtedly some of the hardest are the ones we must have with our children when they lose someone they love, whether it’s the death of a beloved grandparent, sibling or even a pet.
Leading psychotherapist Julia Samuel MBE has dedicated her life to helping people have precisely those conversations, both through her long career as a counsellor, in particular at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, where she worked for 23 years supporting families whose babies and children had died, and as the Founder Patron of Child Bereavement UK, the leading national charity that helps families and trains professionals when a child dies or when a child is bereaved. Here, she shares her tips and advice for tackling the trickiest of topics and ensuring your child deals with their grief in the healthiest and most effective way.
‘Children need the same truth as all the adults around them. Often, adults want to protect their children and so perhaps they don’t tell them the full story of what happened, or they skip the fact that the person has died and just say that they’ve “gone to heaven”. What children don’t know they make up, and what they make up is much more frightening than the truth, so they need to know that whoever it is – their grandma, their sibling or their dog – has died. Eventually they will also need to know how it happened, even if it was suicide or murder or some other terrible circumstance. The main reason they need to know the full truth is because you are the person they need to trust most in the world – if they find out you haven’t told them the whole truth, that will damage the bond of trust, which is vital. It’s vital at all times as a parent, but particularly when they’re grieving and the ground under their feet feels shaky.’
Break the news as a family
‘Sometimes parents are tempted to tell their older child, but not the younger one. But all children need to have the same truth. Even if you think younger children can’t understand, you’d be surprised what they can comprehend. And even if they don’t understand every element, they will be able to pick up if something’s not right, so they all need to have the same truth, and ideally at the same time. But bear in mind that not all children will grieve in the same way – if you’ve got a 17-year-old, they may just want to go clubbing with their friends, while your 12-year-old might want to stay home crying. That doesn’t mean the 17-year-old isn’t grieving, that’s just their way of coping. Let everyone have their own particular way of grieving and support them through it.’
Let them feel their feelings
‘The default response with bereaved children is that kids are amazing, they bounce back, they’re so resilient. But actually, children feel as sad and grieve as much as adults do. They need to be both allowed to be bereaved, sad children and to be happy, normal kids. So when they’re sad or upset or scared, let them tell you what they’re scared about, listen and give them a hug. Don’t tell them not to worry, just let them express it, say what they’re worried about and answer any questions truthfully. More often than not they’ll then hop off your lap and go and play. There’s a metaphor for this: with bereaved children, it’s like they’re jumping in and out of puddles - they jump in the puddle and feel very sad, then they jump out of the puddle and they’re a happy kid again. We need to let them jump in and out of those puddles.’
Lead by example
‘Children learn to grieve by observing the adults around them – they learn from what you show, not from what you say. So, if as the adult you never show sadness, that is how they’ll learn to behave. You need to let yourself be sad and then get on and make dinner – adults do their own version of jumping in and out of puddles after all, and that’s how children learn that it’s normal. I’m not talking about falling apart in front of them, or becoming hysterical, but being sad with them and letting them comfort you. You never want to reverse the role so that they’re parenting you, but letting children feel that they can comfort you and give you a hug is a really nice thing for them. The parents’ wellbeing is the main predictor of the child’s outcome, so it’s important for the parents to get support for themselves, so they can support their children and their family’s system.’
Form positive rituals
‘Seeing family, letting people come over and bring that lasagne and give you a hug – connection and love really helps. The path to recovery in grief needs to be paved with people. You also need to find things that work for you as a family – a great way to grieve together is by going for a walk and then having a pizza or a burger at the end. When you’re walking and talking, you’re not eyeballing each other and it’s easier to open up and say, “I really miss grandpa”. Being outside is curative, and then having a treat together at the end is a very good habit to develop. Another lovely thing to do is have a memory box that sits in the hall, and when people come to visit, they can pop in a little memory, or the children can put one in. Then every month or so you can all sit around the table together and read out the memories. It’s so important to have touchstones to memory – it’s never about forgetting the person who had died, it’s about grieving their physical loss and having ways of bringing them into your hearts, whether it’s through photographs, wearing something of theirs or cooking their favourite recipe.’
Lastly, watch out for warning signs
‘There are specific signs to look out for if your child isn’t coping with their grief – they may not be sleeping well or eating properly, or perhaps they can’t regulate themselves or always seem very upset or nervous. All of these behaviours tell you their emotional system is on high alert, and they’re feeling a lot of fear – because grief feels like fear. We need to talk to our children about their worries. But if it still seems like they’re not coping, they may need professional help. Child Bereavement UK offers lots of tools and advice for those who may need a bit of extra support.’
Julia Samuel MBE is the author of Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving and the founder of the Grief Works interactive app, which provides step-by-step support for those going through the grieving process