Myths around children and young people experiencing death and dying
Myths that may keep children and young people isolated when someone dies.
Through my work with children and young people who experience loss, bereavement or feelings of grief, I am aware of certain myths that exist around death and dying that may be a barrier for parents/carers from feeling competent in talking openly about death or answering questions on the subject without the fear of causing further harm. This may be due to their own or fears around death or it may feel important to shield those they love from feeling the intense feelings associated with grief.
Children and young people who are isolated from being included from talk or experiences of death and dying may not have a way to express or understand their emotions.
On this page I would like to explore myths around children, young people and addressing death in the hope that it may provide reflection, reassurance and direction to parents and carers.
Death and dying is traumatic but a very normal process in life and experiencing the death of someone we love will certainly touch everyone at some stage.
Children or young people who have or will experience the death or someone close to them may be especially vulnerable.
Parents and carers may feel like they are doing what is best for their child by excluding them from attending a funeral or keeping conversations about death to a minimum, but actually, this may have the opposite effect of isolating a young person and creating fear and anxiety through not being able to understand or be included in what has happened.
Children and young people have valid emotions. For them to effectively process their own grief, they have a sense of needing to be included with the rest of their family at this difficult time and feeling able to express their questions and emotions freely. They are old enough to love and therefore old enough to grieve.
Problems arise when young people feel isolated and unable to express their emotions openly and safely. This means that their grief is not supported in the correct way, or worries and questions answered. Imaginations run riot and feelings stay inside, unresolved.
Unresolved feelings in children can show as difficult or risky behaviours. There is an increased risk of unresolved grief surfacing again at some later point in life, leading to additional future emotional issues such as Depression or Anxiety.
No child is too young to grieve, even small babies can sense and miss a familiar presence around them or sense the powerful emotions of others, they just grieve differently to how adults grieve. It is important that parents/carers understand how to support a child or young person who is grieving in a way in which helps them to process and express their feelings and be included.
It is not easy to know what to do for the best when supporting children and young people through death and grief, especially when its very possible that the wider family are also experiencing their own feelings of grief however, understanding a little bit more around common misconceptions may go some way to helping adults consider a different perspective and in turn be much more effective at supporting younger family members at this difficult time.
Here are some common misconceptions around the subject of handling death with regards to children and young people.
1. We need to protect children and young people from the reality of death, it's best to avoid talking about death
Death happens. We are born, we live and then we die, this is a harsh but real fact about life. There is often a need to protect young people against emotional pain, but it is impossible to protect young people from a very real life process such as death or dying.
Even if they are protected now, at some point in their own life process they will be exposed to the experience of losing someone they love and it is at that point where they will either have been prepared and find some resilience through the grief process or find themselves in an overwhelming situation with the increased risk of developing further complications such as anxiety or depression because they have no preparation, resilience or coping strategies in place. They may feel unable to speak out or seek support due to past restrictions they felt in talking openly about their feelings.
Young people benefit greatly from age appropriate simple, honest answers to their questions surrounding death. This helps them to feel included and connected to their family, which in turn promotes emotional safety.
Trust is built from not hiding the truth.
Young people benefit from saying good bye to their family member if possible or being able to openly share their feelings of grief.
2. If they are told about an impending death, a child or young person will be consumed
Adults in their protection around young people, may avoid talking openly, maybe thinking that childhood should be kept happy and sacred.
Children and young people grieve differently to adults and are able to balance joy and sorrow, one minute being able to play, the next to be sad.
It is normal for a child or young person to be able to balance the time they spend experiencing intense emotions, almost like taking time out from feeling them to reengage in play or more balanced emotion. This enables the grief process to balance and process in a way that is different to how adults grieve.
3. If a child or young person does not talk about death then neither should we
It is a common misconception that it may be best not to mention death if our children don't. What parents maybe don't consider is the child's perceived responsibility to protect the adults around them. Even very young children will hold inside their own fears and feelings to protect the wellbeing of the adults around them.
This can lead to further emotional distress. Children and young people will come to their own conclusions about what death means if the adults around them don't speak openly- imagine what a child or young persons imagination could create around death!
The best thing that we can do as parents or carers is to speak openly and to make it ok to approach each other even if it may make us sad. It should always be ok to discuss death or dying and to know that it is ok for children and young people to share their thoughts and worries with the adults around them.
From a parent or carers perspective, it is ok not to have all the answers, what is important is the message that it is ok to ask the questions.
Children and young people can benefit greatly from learning that in life unfortunately some questions don't have answers, but can feel safety and containment in exploring this together with the adults closest to them.
4. Children and young people should not be at the bedside of a family member who is dying.
From a historical point of view, it has been normal for children and young people to visit the bedside of their loved one who is dying.
It is becoming more common to not involve young people in the final stages of life. This may be essentially protective as adults are often reluctant to expose young people to this process in a misguided attempt to protect their wellbeing.
Excluding a child or young person from visiting their loved one during the final stages of their life, denies them the opportunity to say good bye. A young persons imagination can go wild if they are left to imagine what is happening to their loved one rather than being included at this important time.
What is important is to mentally prepare the young person with regards to what is happening and what they should expect and may see, providing simple explanations to questions as they are asked. Being included in this way can really help a young person to process the death and to assist them greatly with their ability to allow their grieving process.