Talking to a child after a death in the family

Behind the smile, there is sadness and fear.

I wrote recently about our children’s responses to a grandparent’s death, noting that their differing ages and personalities meant they processed their feelings about it in contrasting ways.

At the time, I commented that Toby had responded to the news in his usual introverted, reflective way. He didn’t express any feelings outwardly despite a couple of attempts to encourage him to discuss things. Instead he was busy internalising and processing his emotions.

That’s not to say it wasn’t affecting him. For the past several weeks he has been climbing into our bed most nights (something he only ever used to do occasionally) and there have been a few emotional outbursts that were otherwise inexplicable. His feelings were there but they were leaking out around the edges rather than directly.

So it continued. Four weeks passed. Five. Six.

Then suddenly it all came flooding out in one go. The trigger? Of all things, a Horrid Henry book.

Long story short: Henry is wondering what things would be like if he was dead. At this point, Toby dissolved into huge, racking sobs as a month-and-a-half of pent-up emotions and fearful questions came tumbling out.

Will I die? Will you die? Why did Nanna die? Will you die soon? I don’t want you to die before I do.

It was a sudden outpouring of grief mixed with fear, sadness and the realisation that death is both permanent and not a one-off occurrence in our lives. It made for a sudden and potent combination for a seven-year-old child attempting to grasp what had been an abstract concept up to this point.

A non-linear process

Grief is not a simple, linear process. It’s not so much a gentle train ride as tiptoeing unsteadily along a tightrope … and then falling off just when you think you’ve got it sorted. As parents, it’s our job to be standing by with the safety net at just the right moment.

I remember having a similar discussion with my mother when I was five or six. Even now, 40-odd years later, I remember it like it was yesterday. The 70s orange and brown decor as I sat at our kitchen table. The clanking sound of plates and cutlery as mum washed up after dinner, that stopped as the questions spilled out of me. The mix of raw, undeveloped emotions as I passed through all five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. No, you won’t die, mum. You can’t die! What if I promise to be good forever? But I’ll be so sad. Well, okay, as long as it doesn’t happen for a long time.

I wonder if Toby went through a similar thought process. He was inconsolable for ages and in the end I took him in to our bed for a quiet chat and a cuddle until he was all cried out and finally fell asleep nestled in to my chest. He slept in our bed all night and by morning he seemed more his usual self again, although he had a couple of wobbles during the day.

But now the genie is out of the bottle. I expect this is a half-finished conversation we will soon return to.

It’s a tough balancing act. Experts say it is important to be open in talking to children about death – the worst thing you can do is to ignore or suppress it – but equally you don’t want to force a child into a conversation they’re not ready to have yet. There’s a balance to be struck in treating the subject sensitively while not shying away from confronting reality.

I think in many ways the most important thing is not to pre-judge what will happen. Keep your eyes open, watch for unconscious signals and trust your parenting instincts. There’s no point in bluntly asking, “Do you want to talk about Nanna dying?” every week but being aware of anomalous behaviours and being ready to jump straight into the conversation as soon as they open the door – and not a day or two later – is crucial.

This conversation is far from over. We will need to finish it to help give Toby a proper sense of closure. But I’m glad we’ve started it at last.

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