Rituals, like a funeral or scattering ashes in a special place, are an important way for adults to say goodbye to a loved one. Bereaved children may also benefit from the chance to remember loved ones in this way. It can help them express their grief and share it with others.
It may seem difficult to have a child around when you have to cope with your own feelings of loss. But it can help children to express their sorrow if they’re with family and friends.
Do what feels right for you and them.
• Prepare them. Tell your child what’s going to happen at the funeral so they have some idea of what to expect. This might include explaining about the dead person and their body. Try to find your own words for this.
• Give them a choice. You might want to protect your child by keeping them away from the funeral. But later in life bereaved children often express disappointment that they weren’t allowed to attend the memorial. Children often feel positive about having gone to the funeral.
• Have an alternative ceremony. If the child doesn’t want to go, is there something you could do together at home to celebrate the person’s memory? This could be letting off some balloons with messages written on them, or planting a tree.
• Provide support. If your child doesn’t want to go, you should respect their wishes. But if they do, it’s a good idea for a close adult to be with them to offer support and leave the service together if it gets too much.
• Help them understand. You may want to help your child separate the person they knew from the body being buried or cremated. Depending on the child’s age you could tell them that the person who died doesn’t need their body any more. It can no longer move, eat, speak or think. It can’t be mended and won’t do the things it used to do – but it won’t feel hurt, cold or pain any more, either.
Should they see the body?
For some families, viewing the body of a loved one is an important part of coming to terms with their death. Children too can find this helps them to say goodbye or gain reassurance that the person is no longer suffering. Allow them to choose if they want to do this, and prepare them for what to expect. If your child doesn’t want to view the body respect their wishes and help them find their own ways of saying goodbye.
Keeping memories alive
There are many ways of helping children celebrate the life of their loved one. These suggestions may help:
• Let them keep something that belonged to the person who died, such as an item of clothing.
• If the child is finding it hard to go to school, decorate a handkerchief with your fingerprints or handprints on it, and maybe even spray it with scent. This can help them feel that their carer is close to them and safe.
• Make a memory box where your child can keep all the special items that remind them of the person.
• Share happy stories about the person who has died.
• Look through old photographs or videos.
• The child may like to design a pillowcase in memory of the person. This can help them feel closer to them at night.
• Make a scrapbook together about the person who has died. This may encourage your child to open up about their thoughts and feelings.
• Start a journal of memories that can be added to by anyone at any time. This may help children who have lost someone at a young age to remember the person who has died as they grow up.
Bereavement takes place over time and, unlike adults, children may grieve in cycles rather than all at once. This means that, although a child’s grief may seem shorter than an adult’s, it may in fact last longer. They may revisit it at significant milestones such as starting a new school, going to university, starting a job, getting married or having children of their own.
They need to know that it’s OK to move on with life when they’re ready and that they shouldn’t feel guilty about it. Let them know that everyone comes to terms with death in their own way, at their own pace. Some days will be tougher than others but they will eventually adjust.
Returning to school
Some children may want to return to school immediately after a loved one has died, others may need some time off. Talk to your child and see what they feel they can manage.
For instance, they might be able to cope with school if they go for fewer hours a day for a while. They may also refuse to go at all, fearing you won’t be there when they get back. However, because stability is important, too much time off could have the opposite effect.
• Tell the school that you’ve had a bereavement. They may offer support. Your child might also find it helpful to talk to a teacher about how they are feeling.
• Tell the school what’s happened and ask them to let you know how your child is coping.
• Ask your child what they’d like you to tell their school so they feel involved and have a say. This is especially important with older children.
• Make sure they know what you’ve said and to whom, and check that their teacher has received your message.
• Some schools have time out cards or may allow the child to take breaks to phone home.