Every child has different life experiences and these shape the way they understand the world, life and even death. Some children may have had a family member, friend or beloved pet die, yet other children will have had no direct experience of death. Though the subject of death and dying is uncomfortable for many of us and the experience of losing a loved one can be overwhelming for all of us, talking about death to your child as openly and honestly as you can is important in helping them to understand that it is a part of life.
As parents, we communicate with our children all the time, even when we are not talking directly to them. Our body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures and incidental sounds communicate something. We are also messaging our children when they are excluded from contact and conversation. The vivid imagination, so much a part of being a child, will fill in the gaps in their understanding. With this in mind, ‘good’ communication with children occurs when they feel included, respected and listened to.
Here are some guidelines for having sensitive conversations with your children about their sibling dying and supporting them to live with grief.
- Create a safe space for your children and ask them what they understand is happening.
- Give information gradually over time rather than all at once. If possible, tell them of developments or changes to their sibling’s illness, as they occur, so they have time to adjust to what is happening.
- Answer any questions they have simply and directly but try not to overwhelm them with unnecessary details.
- Involve your children as much as their age allows and support them to react in their own way.
- If your other children visit their dying sibling, tell them in advance about the physical changes they can expect to see so they are not shocked.
- Provide and gently encourage opportunities for your children to create memories with their dying sibling. Where you can, record these through journaling, photos and video.
- Ask a trusted relative or friend to spend time with your other children to help support them. Ask for and accept help with practical tasks.
- Keep your child’s support networks and communities (such as school, sports clubs) up to date with what is happening in the family, so they can respond and offer comfort. Continue to check in about how your child is travelling.
- Give your children time to say goodbye to their sibling. It’s an important part of the grieving and healing process.
Finally, don’t be afraid to show your emotions to your children – remember, your child is looking to you for cues about how to respond. Just be sure to provide an age-appropriate description for your child about what you are experiencing.