Preparing Children and Teenagers for Loss
Preparing children or teenagers for the loss of a loved one can be really, really difficult and a position that no one wishes to find themselves in. Loss can be so much more magnified when children are involved - life can feel very unfair and cruel. There is no ‘one size fits all’, but knowing the child, the relationship they had with their loved one, and their level of understanding will help you to navigate the best way you can for the child.
You don’t have to do it alone and having a network of people that can support the child can be extremely beneficial and helpful. This may consist of family and close friends, as well as social workers, palliative care nurses, doctors, counsellors, and psychologists who can help especially where close family are too distressed to think clearly on how to explain the upcoming loss to the child. It is important to keep the narrative consistent among the adults, as much as possible, to aid preparation for loss.
The way children understand and react to death often depends on their age and their level of understanding.
Children under 3
They can pick up that something isn’t right and even if they don’t know what death means, they understand that what’s happening is serious. Children as young as 3 can grieve. Children under 3 can sometimes regress in areas such as toileting or feeding.
Children aged 3–5
Children aged 3–5 may have heard the words dead, death or dying before although it’s unlikely at this age that they fully grasp what it means and how it will impact them.
They may think that a dead person is just someone sleeping for a long time but that they’ll wake up, or that they’ve gone somewhere to live but will be coming back.
When preparing for death, using child-friendly terminology will really help too. Use words that they use, like ‘dead’ rather than ‘passed away,' and explain that when it does happen, their loved one will not be able to come back.
Asking someone, that the child knows and trusts, to keep an eye on how they are doing is a good idea - let them know who you are asking to do this so they know it’s someone they can ‘check in’ with.
Stick to routines that are already in place where you can as this will create a sense of stability and structure for them.
Reassure them that there was nothing they could have done to help them and what’s happening is not their fault.
If it’s a terminal illness that the loved one is dying from, let them know that they cannot catch the illness from them.
Keep nursery, school, and any other groups the child attends, in the loop as to what’s happening so that they can offer additional support.
Children aged 6–12
Children in this age range tend to understand more about death but, as with all children, they may not always understand the emotions they feel.
When children get to around 9, they begin to understand death like adults do.
They may get stuck a bit in the ‘bargaining’ stage of grief, believing that if they are very ‘good’ their loved one may come back. However, their main concern is more likely to be that death is scary and painful.
Many of the suggestions for younger aged children above can also be useful for this age range too. You may also want to explore child-friendly books that talk about death and loss of a loved one (some are specific to a mum, dad, friend and pet etc). (See Child Bereavement UK or Winston’s Wish for some ideas).
Maintaining the child’s consistency with school, interests, hobbies and activities will also encourage a sense of stability and grounding.
Reassuring them that it’s ok to see their friends and enjoy themselves whilst at the same time it’s ok to be sad too.
Small responsibilities at school can help them to feel special - being chosen for things like watering the class plant or being the line leader also gives them purpose.
Informing the parents of their close friends, who you know they trust, as they can also offer support and ensure they are being sensitive, as a family, to the child’s upcoming loss.
Teenagers are old enough to know what’s happening when someone is dying, and that this will mean a major change and loss in their life. Teenagers often find loss more difficult than younger children and in turn may cope in ways that are difficult to understand or manage.
Some teenagers may flat out refuse to talk about the loss whilst others may be more open to sharing how they are feeling. Some can express anger verbally or physically and perhaps later feel guilty about how they’ve behaved.
It’s important that it’s communicated to teenagers that there is no right or wrong way to feel at this time and that it’s okay if their feelings change a lot – in fact it’s really common for grief to come in waves.
Ask them how they are feeling and that you are available if they want to talk about things whilst allowing them space if they need it.
Encourage them to talk to someone they are close to as well, such as their friends, a relative, a family friend or a trusted teacher.
See if they would like to be included in things and be a part of decisions such as the funeral, flowers, memory making etc.
Share helpful resources and information that may help, including any local services that may be able to offer age appropriate support.
As with the other age groups, encourage them to maintain seeing their friends, participating in activities and keeping as much of their usual routine as possible.
Be mindful that rules and boundaries are still very important and can help to create a sense of safety for teenagers.
Link to useful worksheets: https://www.therapistaid.com/therapy-worksheets/grief/none