#TweenTalks: How To Talk To Your Kids About Death And Grief

For this week's #TweenTalks former actor and mum-of-two Holly Matthews shares her experience of losing her husband, and what she learned about talking to children about it.

Tween Talks

by Grazia Contributor |
Updated on

Welcome to #TweenTalks, a weekly franchise by Grazia’s parenting community, The Juggle (@TheJuggleUK on Instagram) where we speak to experts about tackling touchy subject with your tween-age kids. This week, former actor and mum-of-two Holly Matthews (@iamhollymatthews) shares her experience of losing her husband, and what she learned about talking to children about it.

I became a widowed mum at 32 when my husband Ross died from a rare brain tumour in 2017. Our daughters were four and six at the time, and while they’re now 11 and 13 I have learnt many tools that have helped me navigate griefwith them along the way. In fact, I'm now a qualified self-development coach and founder of The Happy Me Project, helping women build their confidence.

Talking to children about death can be a scary prospect for any parent, but for many it's forced upon them. The day I told my daughters Ross was going to die had me waking in a cold sweat and I very literally nearly threw up beforehand.

I had been lucky enough to chat with presenter and author Jeff Brazier about his experience of telling his boys that Jade Goody was going to die, and this helped prepare me. He told me what I instinctively knew (that the girls needed to say goodbye) and to say sorry, that they could say what they needed to, or ask what they needed to.

Because Ross’ brain function was deteriorating, I had to do this early enough that he could be part of this conversation and not make it an awful experience. Thankfully we timed it well, as a week later he had deteriorated to a point he couldn’t have been there at all.

Holly and Ross and family
©Holly Matthews

The girls sat at the foot of his hospital bed, and I lead the conversation, explaining that this wasn’t good news as I held their hands tightly. 'Although Daddy has fought really hard and taken all the medicine the doctors have given him, it isn’t working,' I said. I stuttered and stumbled to say the words that I personally hadn’t yet accepted, and my daughter Brooke blurted out ‘Just say it! I know what you’re going to say!’. My mouth was dry, and my body shook as I told them ‘Daddy is going to die’. I explained that this was nobody’s fault, that he had tried so hard and that the cells in his body just couldn’t get better. I told them we didn’t yet know exactly when, but it would be soon, that they could ask any questions and that Daddy loved them so much.

We cried. We hugged. I felt almost numb, desperately wanting to protect them. The nurses cried too and brought them sweets as they took them to play with Ross’s Mum Dionne while I gathered myself.

Having to tell my daughters their dad was going to die made me face the reality that even as my daughter’s protector, I cannot save them from every pain in life. That I could sit by their side, support them, and hold space for whatever way they expressed their pain, but it would be theirs to walk through. It taught me that honesty is the best policy with my children and to trust my gut (lots around me wanted me to hold off telling the girls to protect them, but I knew it was time). This time in my life taught me that when things are hard that we must sometimes live moment to moment, not look too far ahead and appreciate the moment of good, the people that help and the space to breathe.

For anyone going through anything similar, here's what I learned in the process and what I'd suggest now.

Try not to use flowery language

Age appropriate is one thing but skirting around the point will lead you nowhere positive. Avoid using descriptions like ‘went to sleep’ or ‘passed away’ as these don’t make sense to children and could even result in them being fearful of sleep. Be direct and use words such as ‘death’ and ‘died’ to avoid confusion, even when it’s hard for your adult brain to say.

Let them ask their endless, sometimes difficult, questions

Children will have questions and if we don’t give them answers (even if the answer is ‘I don’t have an answer to that’) they will find them out online, from peers or make them up in their head. I have had to answer a million questions since my husband’s death and this has included questions like ‘Did I give Dad cancer because I stood on his foot, once?’, ‘What will happen if you die too, will I be an orphan?’ and scientifically ‘How do humans die?’ - all manner of difficult questions.

Allow them all. Use other tools like having a questions box in the house, where they can write their questions down, encourage them to make a video question and send it to you (if they have devices to do this) or even having a time of day when they can ask questions. Some kids will need to be encouraged with this as they won’t want to upset the adults.

Top and tail with joy

When having these painful conversations, it’s important to find ways to pepper them with joy. When I told my daughters their dad had died, after the initial tears we sat at the table and did some creative stuff. This helped the girls find a way to distract, process, forget for a moment and feel connected to me. Sweets, balloons, dancing in the kitchen, kicking a football around the park have their place in grief conversations because they allow our children (and us) to breathe between.

Ask questions right back

Try not to assume anything. Ask their thoughts on what you have said, ask if they need more explanation and ask if anything is worrying them about what you have discussed. It might be important for you to ask their thoughts on what happens when we die. Some of you will have strong religious beliefs but some will be open to what your child decides. I asked my children their thoughts on an afterlife and explained both my own and lots of other interpretations from other people. I told them whatever they believed was right for them and as long as it helped, it was the right answer.

Show your emotions, no matter what they are

Don’t feel like you have to hide all your feelings from your children. Allowing them to see your tears, pain or frustration (in a way that still feels safe to them) is important. Without seeing that they may feel that they have to hide their emotions or that the adults have just ‘moved on’. Let them know that when it comes to death and grief all emotions are OK and that while we might need support with the more challenging emotions, such as anger, you will always be there to help them through them all.

About Holly Matthews:

Holly, 39, is a former singer and actress best known for her roles on Waterloo Road, Casualty and Byker Grove. Now a qualified NLP practitioner, self-development and psychology coach, Holly founded The Happy Me Project, helping women build their confidence including with parenting. Holly is the author of a best-selling Bloomsbury book, and her TedTalk on accepting life's unfairness has been watched by half-a-million people.

Find Your Confidence: The No-Nonsense Guide To Self-Belief by Holly Matthews will be out in September by Bloomsbury Publishing.

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