Be brave, be truthful

11 Nov

I recall putting my youngest son to bed when he was three, and was taken by surprise when he piped up: “Where’s my Daddy?” It’s not an unusual question Billy has never met his Dad and until then hadn’t asked for him. I knew it was time to reveal: “Daddy isn’t here anymore, he has died.” 
Ouch. I felt horrible using such stark language but know it was the right thing to do. My husband had suffered a sudden and  fatal heart attack two weeks before Billy’s birth, leaving me with a his brother, then nearly five-years-old, and a newborn . 
My older son, in reception year at school, had no comprehension of his loss – how could he as he’d never experienced loss before  – and he seemed stuck on the bare facts. Why didn’t Daddy’s heart work? What made it break?  I quickly discovered the importance of using the right words and understanding the impact they have on young children, and most vitally, allowing them to share the bereavement. A child has shared the life of a close relative, so must be involved in their death, too, or they can feel bewildered, isolated and even frightened.
Be confident that kids are amazing. Interested, enquiring, eager to learn and join in they want to be involved in all aspects of family life. Death is one of the trickiest concepts for youngsters to grasp, and one of the hardest for us grown-ups to share. We want to keep children safe, wrap them up against hurt and pain, and protect them from upset. It’s tempting to try and be comforting by saying the person who’s died has “gone to sleep”, or are “living with the angels”  or have “gone to Heaven”. Adults – even professionals working in hospitals, schools and as social workers, often talk in vague terms about “losing someone” or them having “passed on”.  But this can be confusing.
From a child’s point of view, if Dad’s lost, why can’t we find him? Why did he want to go and live somewhere else – and can I go too? Who attacked his heart? If he went to sleep and didn’t wake up, what will happen if Mummy, or I go to sleep – will we wake up?
Be wary of firing their imagination in totally the wrong way. Saying that someone has ‘died’ or is ‘dead’ is honest, and helps to avoid misunderstandings and encourages acceptance. Professionals experienced in working with bereaved children encourage helping youngsters to understand by giving them information ­perhaps in small pieces to give them time to absorb it, and helping them communicate and express how they feel. Depending on the age of the child, you may have to repeat things many times and allow them to ask questions, often over and over. They may check it out with other adults.
In answering Billy’s question and telling him that his Daddy had died, I had to remind myself it was harder for me to say than for him to hear. At that age, Billy had no real concept of the loss that death involves, but at least he had the right words from the outset and in time will come to understand. For older children, being clear is opening the door for discussion, helping them to share their feelings and ask appropriate questions.
Books, both fact and fiction, help find words. The messages are that it’s ‘okay’ and ‘normal’ to feel how they do. It gives children something to relate to and crucially can provide a springboard for conversation with their peers or other adults. There are books that talk clearly about death and coping with bereavement, and others which are helpful in discussing feelings in more general ways which we can relate to our sense of loss.
The Sad Book by Michael Rosen is based on how he felt when his son Eddie died. Rosen says that books are starting points for conversations. “There is”, he says, “a kind of magic when you put things into words, that help you sort out your feelings and realise what you feel.”
Yep – words are magic, if they’re the right ones.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: