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Why children need to talk about dying

21 MARCH 2018

At some time or other, all those who care for children will be faced with questions about dying. Children deserve honest answers, but as adults, we get worried about saying the wrong thing. What’s the right approach?

Toby Scott from Dying Matters – an organisation that aims to help people talk more openly about dying, death and bereavement – explains how we can start that conversation with children.

A few years ago, my daughters announced that, having thought about it, they’d worked out the order in which we, as a family, would die. Starting from their assumption that everyone has the same fixed lifespan, they announced that my wife would die first, then me, then our oldest daughter and so on.

It was charming, and a little scary, and of course it required us to tell them that not everyone lives to be the same age (they didn’t have a specific lifespan in mind – just “old”) and hence none of us know exactly when we will die. As a conversation it was unexpected, and a bit awkward, and of course it only happened because they brought it up.

As adults, we’re getting better at talking about death, although not as good as we need to be. But we’re not as good when it comes to talking to children. The deaths of pets and grandparents have traditionally provided the platform for these conversations but that assumes that the child had a pet, and isn’t deeply upset by its death, or that the parent isn’t deeply upset by the loss of their own parent and so on.

Research by Dying Matters shows that a majority of people think that schools should provide space to talk about death and grief as part of the curriculum. This is encouraging, but it should get us, as adults, off the hook. Schools have a role to play, but so do we all. Death is universal: why aren’t we talking about it.

I suspect that children are more capable of talking about death than we adults give them credit for. The death of prominent characters is a given in children’s fiction and hasn’t prevented those books or films acquiring classic status. There are plenty of resources out there to help these conversations (including our own very popular leaflet – Talking to children about dying). So the challenge is: why do we, as adults, shy away from it?

We avoid discussing death with children until something happens that makes it unavoidable or until they turn 18 and society starts demanding that they make a will and buy life insurance. Yes, it can be a hard conversation to have, and you have to think carefully about the timing and the context. But all children will be bereaved in some way even if it’s only the death of a fictional character. Every time we shut down a child’s questions about death, we’re making it harder for them (and us) later. We’re denying something essential about human existence and we forget that for most of human history – and today for many children around the world – death is a very real part of young lives.

My own children’s questions probably aren’t typical, but their open acceptance of death as a thing – even if they didn’t really understand it – probably is. It can be complex, messy and awkward to discuss, but we do need to talk about it.

Noah’s Ark Children’s Hospice offers families end-of-life and post-death support for up to three years after bereavement. We host an annual Memory Day for bereaved families in September to remember those who have died as well as running the Butterfly Group which allows time for adults and children to meet together, and to participate in memory making activities. To find out more about any of these events please contact care@noahsarkhospice.org.uk

Noah’s Ark is also involved in the Supporting Young People Facing Bereavement study days providing valuable guidance to teaching staff. To read more about our work in this area, see our recent article Teachers go back to school to learn about loss.

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