When their loved one dies your child will exhibit all kinds of unusual behaviour. Every example I give in this post, we have been told is absolutely normal and to be expected, so hopefully it will be helpful and maybe save you asking or worrying yourself.
Children fall into several distinct groups, and you will see that very clearly in their behaviour and what they say:
- Children under 2 will generally not be able to appreciate what has happened. I didn't have children under 2 at the time of our loss, so I won't talk about them in this post.
- Children between around 2 and 7 will be able to grasp an idea of death and permanence.
- 7 to 17 year olds will all behave in much the same way, and it is only once they are over this age that they react in the same way as adults.
Children under 7 can seem incredibly matter-of-fact. This is all new to them, and they will want to know all kinds of details about what has happened, some of which will seem completely irrelevant or rude. They are interested in what is going to happen to the dead person's shoes? Who will tell school? Where will the body go? Who will take me swimming now? and yes, 'will they become a zombie?'.
Our youngest child was 4 when his sister died, and really struggled with the idea that she might still be in our house. He needed daily reassurance and reminders that she had not come back. He was scared of her room, and only relaxed once we had removed all possible hiding places - the bed, the wardrobe etc. He was unable to sleep for the first few days, and on advice from our bereavement counsellor we gave him the choice of seeing his sister at the funeral home. He was keen to see her, and asked some questions about whether she was a zombie. When we took him a quick look was all he needed, and then he was completely bored by her. He slept better after that, but still woke several times a night. Eventually he was prescribed a mild sedative which we gave him for 5 nights to return him to a regular sleeping pattern, and it worked brilliantly.
Most of our children have admitted to nightmares, they're a common feature unfortunately, and little children may need to talk about them, or may not. My children slept with a light on for a long time, and we gradually weaned them off it using smaller and smaller strips of battery-powered LED lights. The best thing we have ever found is the World's Apart GoGlow Tilt Torch. I was sent it by a kind PR who wanted to help. It's absolutely awesome for children in this position because picking it up switches it on immediately, and it also works as a gentle room light - and we've had it 9 months and haven't had to replace the batteries.
My youngest child still won't go to the toilet at night alone. At first my 2 youngest boys woke each other to go together, but now sometimes they wake us. For several months my youngest would avoid going to the toilet alone in the day time, and although he has now overcome that fear, he is still scared of being anywhere indoors alone, and regularly got in trouble at school for running through the cloakroom before we realised why he always ran.
The circumstances surrounding a death may be specifically traumatic or worrying, and children of any age need to feel safe, and as a parent you need to be reassured that what happened isn't going to happen to anyone else. Our youngest child even now will ask if we're going to die, and make us promise that we won't. I won't lie to any child, so I promise that I am certainly not intending or expecting to die any time soon. All of my children, especially the younger ones, have been caught watching us sleeping, checking we're still breathing, and I think the fact they didn't come into bed with us it is actually much more of a surprise than we realised at the time.
Children can be a bit more mischievous, a bit more sensitive and more demanding of time and attention. Negative attention is more draining than positive, but you may barely have the time or energy for arranging activities and play dates. We were lucky and some good friends sent us new toys for all of the children, another friend sent us cinema vouchers. It gave us all time off to collect ourselves and slow the treadmill for a while.
Children can regress, and we've had a few accidents and tantrums. No-one wants to do anything tricky, so toys designed for younger children and familiar games and books are great. We also had a few books which deal especially with loss for my children to read with us. Initially the two younger children were both more sensitive and easily upset, and in common with everyone else, very tired. It means you walk a tightrope trying not to upset anyone else, when you are struggling to find the energy yourself. This works both ways, so the pressure on everyone can be immense. It's very easy to become upset, and once anger creeps in, it can become even harder to retain control. When you are exhausted and just feel like sleeping, having to keep breaking up 2 fighting schoolboys can seem unnecessarily cruel.
Your children may wish to talk, or may not. They may ask inappropriate questions, tell random strangers, or even talk about the situation as if they were an outsider watching, but they will most definitely tell their friends. Both of my young children decided to share their news at circle time within a day of each other, 2 1/2 weeks after returning to school. They were both allowed the freedom to share, they both told more than the basics, and if any of the parents had any complaint or comment, I never heard about it.
This is their life. This is possibly the most important thing that has ever happened to them, and it is upsetting. Adults share with our friends in a different way to small children, we will sit and talk over a coffee, they may shout it across the football pitch and announce it at 'show and tell'. They have to learn about eternity, and that is the most difficult concept to grasp. Our 4 year old asked repeatedly over several days when his sister would return or come back to life, and when he began to understand that really she wouldn't, he shared his new understanding with everyone, even telling people at her funeral that she was "dead forever and that means never ever coming back".
If you have a religion then you may have answers to the most difficult and obvious question that a child will have. Where are they now? We do not have a religion, nor do we have firm or definite ideas on exactly what does or doesn't happen when you die.
We were warned not to say that their sister had gone up into the sky to be a star, as this can upset children who think she's watching them sleep, or isn't bothered enough to be there when they're awake. We were warned definitely never to say 'she is sleeping', as this is not sleep. Sleep is what we want our children to do each night, and what we do each night, and if our children are terrified in case they or other people regularly do not return then that's going to be a far harder job all round.
We found it natural to tell our children that actually we don't know what happens when you die, but some people think you go to Heaven, some think you become a star, some think you become a new baby, some think you will become an animal, some think you just end. We don't know, but you can believe whatever you wish. Our two young boys both believe different things, we're fine with that, and so are they.
Children and young people from 7 to 17 can appreciate the idea of death, and loss. Although my 2nd youngest child was only just before his 6th birthday when his sister died, his response was mainly what you would expect from a slightly older child. He instantly knew that his sister was gone forever, and he calmly answered questions from his younger brother. He knew she was dead, and understood that too. He was very quiet at first, and didn't cry. He didn't like anyone to talk about his sister, but after discussion said it was okay if they did, as long as he didn't have to join in the conversation. It was around 6 weeks before he spoke about her properly.
He attached significance to items, and things that belonged to his sister took on new meaning. He was concerned about borrowed things not yet returned, and was unhappy to use objects that reminded him of her. He had a pair of pyjamas with her favourite TV show on, and it was 5 months before he chose to wear them again. He never spoke about it, nor did he want to, and we never pressured him.
Because my 6 year old was so non-vocal about his sister, we tried to give him other ways to express himself, and gave him a notepad to write on, and bought a memory box for treasure. The notepad he didn't bother with, but the memory box he did, and it is an excellent place for him to put things that remind him personally of his sister. Expensive or worth pennies, it's all his special treasure and has meaning to him.
Our teenagers felt a need to find distractions, and at times these were all-encompassing. One spent the entire first week watching and reading Harry Potter - their sister's books and DVD's giving them comfort. Many hundreds of loom band bracelets were made in our house over the first few weeks.
All of our teenagers and our 6 year old spent the first few days very quiet and reflective, and saw the funeral service as a very welcome distraction. They all took a massive interest, and everyone helped organise it. The music, readings, flowers and everything were chosen together. Our 6 year old pushed the button to close the curtain, and everyone was given consideration.
Our daughter's teenage friends were grieving too, and it was important to us to include them. The funeral home we chose was easily accessible and they had the opportunity to visit with her before the service. During the service we left plenty of time for any of her friends who wanted to, to come forward and speak, and it was lovely that so many did. We chose Sunflowers as a theme, and all of her friends brought flowers to place on the coffin. Sharing the grief together gave us all strength, and it made her funeral service a true celebration of who she was.
After the funeral service is over, older children will return to daily life more easily than adults, and that is not a reflection of how they feel about the loved one they have lost, it is a better ability to compartmentalise. Some days will be too much, and a passout system in school is a great idea for a time out. Some of our children missed a few afternoons at school because they had reached their limits, but they were back the next day, and within a month or so found it tolerable every day. On their sister's birthday 6 months later everyone found it impossible to 'try and act normally', and in fact, aside from the 2 youngest, we all ended up at home by lunchtime that day.
Anniversarys and birthdays are very hard. Your older children understand and remember. They will see the space where a card should be, they will remember 'this time last year'. We celebrated Elspeth's birthday with a cake (at the request of our 6 year old), and we all spent the day reflecting. Her friends all got together and lit Chinese lanterns in the countryside during the evening. It was a very fitting tribute, and again, shared the grief and gave strength.
Whatever age your child is, wherever you can be truthful. Answer all questions with something, even if it's another question, or an 'I don't know'. It seems hard to talk, but it helps everyone. Don't share more than your child is comfortable with, and if you can't discuss it right then, it's fine to say 'I can't talk about that right now because it makes me too sad'. That lets them know that it'll be okay for them to feel like that too.
All of our family have received bereavement counselling. I insisted on it from the outset, and it was put into place quickly enough to have made a difference. The smaller children received their counselling through us, we fed back about their behaviour and any problems, and advice was always on hand. The older children all agreed to see CAMHs counsellors to talk through how they felt, and all say it was useful. Knowing that what you are thinking and feeling is normal, is half way to feeling okay about yourself and being able to move forward.
There are absolutely tons of resources for whatever sort of support you may need. We chose Co-op Funeral Services as our undertaker, and they actually had a book which they gave out free to bereaved children, which emphasises that pretty much any emotion you are feeling is normal and fine. The Co-op currently have a collection of DVDs which are available covering the loss of a parent or grandparent. The animated DVDs are aimed at children in the 7-16 bracket, from the perspective of a child, and talk about feelings and emotions. They deal with the year following the loss, which helps children understand that it's okay to have bad days or feel terribly sad at times even if it is many months, or even years, later.
As a parent of bereaved children, watching their grief is as bad as suffering my own. It took a long time before I paid attention to my own health, as long as they had meals and slept, that was okay. In actuality you have to consider yourself as important as them, because caring for yourself means you are more able to be there for your children.
Listen to advice and take support wherever it's offered. Paying attention doesn't mean you have to follow everything you are told, but if the same thing crops up time after time, maybe it's worth a try. Everyone from friends and relatives through to school teachers and social workers are there for you, to help you, and guide you through a very hard and confusing time.
Let your children see you cry, don't be ashamed. Let them see you smile too, and revel in their laughter even when you can't join in. You are not superhuman but nor are they, and they will take their cues from you. Don't show them an unfaltering face that is only an act. If you are lucky, you may even get a hug.
All children are different, they will all have a very different experience, but the child who is quiet and seemingly disinterested is grieving just as much as the one who cries freely. Talking incessantly about their sister, or refusing to mention her, were both important ways that our children have used to cope. No two of our 6 children and young people reacted in the same way, or even now expresses themselves identically. Grief is about yourself, your own loss, and you have to deal with it in your own time and your own way.
If you are reading this post because you felt a need, then I wish you strength. If you are reading from curiosity, then I leave you my best hopes that you never need that strength.
Our eldest girl Elspeth died without warning, aged 16, on August 15th 2014. We have 6 other children who were aged between 4 and 20 when we lost her.
I wasn't given any incentive for any of the links in this post - under the circumstances that would have been wrong.