Dealing with the death of a loved one can be incredibly hard for adults. Common reactions to bereavement include shock and numbness, overwhelming sadness, anger and sometimes even a feeling of guilt. If this is how the typical grown-up feels, how do children who are yet to reach adolescence cope with the bombshell of a death in the family?
To find out how children understand, experience and come to terms with the inevitable, Legal & General surveyed 1,000 parents of children aged 3–16. The results of the research highlight intriguing differences in how children and adults conceptualise and cope with death.
Many children, feeling lost and confused about what’s happened to the deceased, ask questions in an attempt to better understand the circumstances. The results of the survey showed that the most common question asked by children asked 3–16 is: ‘How did they die?’, suggesting that the cause of death is often not completely obvious to them. More tellingly, the second most asked question is: ‘Where did they go?’. This metaphysical query is nearly five times more likely to be asked by a 3–9-year-old (38%) than a 10–16-year-old (8%).
Previous research has shown that under-5s are very unlikely to understand that death is permanent, which creates a dilemma for parents. Should they tell the truth (as they see it) or sugarcoat the stark reality of the situation? Ten per cent of the parents in Legal & General’s study said they lied to their children to soften the blow, despite some experts believing that honesty is the best policy.
According to Child Bereavement Network, around 1 in 20 young people will have experienced the death of one or both of their parents by the age of 16, which suggests that preparing children for the experience of loss is important for protecting their mental health.
When asked for the age they believe is ideal for first talking to their children about the concept of death, the most common answer given by parents was 6 years old, which was after explaining how to stay safe around strangers (4 years old), but before talking about sex (10 years old) and illicit drugs (11 years old). However, 1 in 5 (22%) of children have lost a pet, friend or family member by the age of six, which suggests that some bereaved young people may not have had ‘the talk’ in time for their first experience of death.
One tactic used by parents to educate their children about death without traumatising them with its bleakness is making reference to the passing of characters in fictional stories. More than half (53%) said fictional deaths of characters like Mufasa in The Lion King, Dobby in Harry Potter, and Bambi’s mother helped their child better understand death. More than one-third of parents said that popular culture, such as TV shows and books, should be responsible for educating children about death. This was almost as many as those who said grandparents should hold some responsibility (38%). After parents, schools were considered the most responsible for teaching children about death (46%), but the topic of death and bereavement is not currently covered in the national curriculum in the UK, where the survey was carried out.
Without comprehensive support from the education system, parents are left to deal with the emotional fallout of a family bereavement. When asked how they help their child through the grieving process, 1 in 5 parents said they let their child play more often, 17% said they let them stay up late, 14% pointed to more family days out as being useful, and 7% bought them presents to lift their mood.
Keeping alive the memory of the person who died stood out as important to many parents, with 67% saying that talking about the deceased with their children was how they preserved their memory, followed by looking at photos (57%) and cherishing physical mementos (28%).
Even with multiple coping strategies in place, many children will need time to process and move past their sadness. For instance, 17% of parents said their child had trouble sleeping following a family member’s death. Reflecting on the results of Legal & General’s research, Dr Katie Koehler of Child Bereavement UK advised: ‘Children are naturally curious and often ask questions that we’re not prepared for. However, it’s fairly easy to introduce the topic of death in day to day conversations – such as commenting on how the flowers in a vase have died (and cannot come back to life again), or insects/animals they may come across – how they no longer move, no longer need food or water. Creating an environment where communication can flow freely and easily, encouraging questioning, giving open and honest responses, and using accurate language at a level appropriate to their understanding, will all help children to feel okay about raising difficult issues.’