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LucyGransnet (GNHQ) Thu 22-Sep-16 11:31:18

Children and grief

Marian Carter, a chaplain in hospitals and hospices, describes some of the children she has met during her working life, and their own unique ways of dealing with grief.

Marian Carter

Children and grief

Posted on: Thu 22-Sep-16 11:31:18


Lead photo

How have you approached the subject of death with your grandchildren?

We think of children as innocent and in need of protection from the challenging events of life, particularly suffering and death. But children experience death. They may see a dead bird in the garden or a cat that has been run over. Reactions are different.

One day going home from school William, who is ten, noticed a cat in the road which had been run over. Other pupils passed by in horror but William comes from a Roman Catholic family. He stopped and prayed aloud for the cat.

Turning to his mother he said, “The cat is now in heaven with Jesus,” and walked confidently on. For William, grief was acknowledged and given to God.

Stephanie lived in the country. At three she came across a dead pheasant. She was distressed and asked her mother if she breathed on it, would it come alive.

Grief caused distress for Stephanie and led to her need for action.

I know of a parent who rang up the head teacher of her child's primary school to complain of a school assembly to remember a child in the class who had died of a terminal illness; "I don't want my child's innocence to be spoilt," she said.

This is denial of grief in a child, by a parent who wanted her child to be protected from the reality that life involves suffering.

Her body was lying on the sofa in the main room, a cat curled up on her feet. Her brother and sisters played on the floor around her, unperturbed.

This is a relatively modern attitude which tends to be western and middle class. I remember visiting a farmer's cottage. Their ten year old daughter had died of leukaemia. Her body was lying on the sofa in the main room, a cat curled up on her feet. Her brother and sisters played on the floor around her, unperturbed.

Death was nothing to be feared.

A few years ago, during a period of unemployment, my brother asked if I could go and stay with a family who were friends of his, though not known to me.

His friends' wife had died at home after fighting cancer. She left a distraught husband and three young daughters. Her daughters had been told by their maternal grandmother that their mum was getting better.

The eldest girl, Sally, was 10. She went to school as usual. I telephoned the school to find out her reactions. The school knew of the mother's death, since it was a small community, and Sally's teacher said it was as if Sally was "all bottled up."

Sally’s grief was a change in behaviour, a sullenness.

I spent time with Sally. As the eldest, she knew where cooking pots and china were kept. I depended on her help to run the house. Gradually we built up a relationship and she felt able to share her grief.

Judy, aged six, was angry. She was sure that mum had died because the nurse had arrived late. Her emotions were expressed by getting out her mum's jewellery and high heeled shoes and clattering around the house. This distressed her grieving father.

Anger and challenging behaviour was Judy's expression of grief.

The youngest of the girls, Amy, was two and a half. When I took Amy out in her pushchair we met people she knew. They did not know what to say to such a young child, but Amy did. She said to them, "My mummy's dead."

Later that day Amy and I did a jigsaw. Unfortunately there was a piece missing. Her reaction was, "It’s dead."

At the age of two and a half, Amy's grief was expressed in this way. Her mother had been virtually bedridden for much of Amy's life, but now life had changed - her mother was missing.

Children grieve in different ways. We must be aware of this, listen, watch and be there for a child.

Marian's book, Helping Children to Think About Death, Dying and Bereavement, is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers and is available from Amazon.

By Marian Carter

Twitter: @Gransnet

rolosgran2 Sat 24-Sep-16 09:14:17

I thought it quite beautiful the young child amidst her loving family, not in some undertakers . I remember doing exactly this when my grannie died at home with the family, we played around in the room where she was . If it was a member of my immediate family I would want then home with us.

savvynanny Sat 24-Sep-16 09:57:42

I was working in a Nursing home and the couple who ran the kitchens used to have their 7 year old daughter come in and talk to the residents , One lady that she was particularly fond of had been terminally ill and passed away during a visit , the little girl wasn't coping at all with the loss of her "friend", Another resident took her in her arms and said " listen sweetheart ,look at life like a flower we grow from a seed our stems get higher the older the are , we bud and we bloom into beautiful flowers , but just like flowers we grow old and withered and then we die , we go back to where we came from There is nothing to be afraid of its the cycle of life " Words I will never forget because the little one took everything in and calmed , She said That means that a new flower will grow .

Luckygirl Sat 24-Sep-16 09:59:36

We had a similar thread a while back and people made some very helpful suggestions and ideas for books that were helpful.

Ruskin Sat 24-Sep-16 10:25:17

My Mother died when my sons were just 18 months & 3.5 years. I took both to her funeral as they were an important part of her life - I knew my siblings would understand if they made noise or laughed at the wrong point (& my Mother would have laughed too!)If more distant relatives or friends didn't approve that would be their problem. In the car leaving the service the older boy asked me "Why did that man say Nanny was alive even though she is dead?" (presumably from hearing "Though we may die, yet shall we live" etc) which gave us an ideal opportunity to talk to him about the idea of life after death so I am glad I took him.
Also my youngest son (neither of the above children) is autistic & goes to a mixed special needs school which means they are sadly all too familiar with the reality of their friends dying & all cope well. The hardest time was when their much loved Head Teacher took his own life - for that there was extra support available & the whole school discussed it as much (or as little) as each wanted to.
Death is all around us & I believe it is much better to let children grow up understanding about it so that when it, inevitably, comes into their life they already have at least SOME idea of what it means

MaryXYX Sat 24-Sep-16 10:56:10

Our 12th child was a trisomy and only lived for 20 minutes. The rest of the family never saw him alive. They came in the next day and almost all of them held him to say hello and goodbye. We had prepared them, and it was sad but part of being a family. We didn't make a lot of fuss about it.

gillybob Sat 24-Sep-16 11:23:28

During my mums last days I arranged for my DDiL to bring my three grandchildren ( her GGC) to visit her . We explained to them that this would be the last time they would see her . They walked into the bedroom where she sat up in bed and smiled the most enormous smile ( I am tearful writing this) and they climbed up beside her. She told them that she loved them very much and told them to have a lovely life and to keep doing their riding, gymnastics, playing football etc . And that she would always be thinking about them. They then each got down from the bed and carried on as normal . They raided the fridge, got the colouring things out and told stories about what they had been up to earlier that day. After about an hour they left. They hugged my mum and told her that they loved her and my middle DGD (8) told my mum to "please say hello to God from me" . It broke my heart but I am so glad we did it . My mum died two days later .

grannyqueenie Sat 24-Sep-16 13:19:30

What a positive and down to earth experience for your grandchildren to have, gillybob and your mum and others in your family who were there too. Those children will take that into adult life and it will contribute hugely to how they cope with all sorts of losses as they grow up No wonder you felt tearful writing it. I was teary reading it, thank you for sharing such a personal family moment. I hope that doesn't sound patronising ad that's not my intention, I'm just appreciative and full of admiration. X

gillybob Sat 24-Sep-16 15:09:39

Thankyou so much for your kind words grannyqueenie I worried after I had posted that others might have thought the children's visit to be inappropriate but we are such a small, close family that it just seemed the right thing to do. I couldn't have lived with myself telling them that great grandma had died, knowing that we could have given both them, and my mum a chance to say goodbye and share their love for each other . smile

Luckygirl Sat 24-Sep-16 16:08:13

Definitely not inappropriate at all - it sounds perfect. A good decision.

Lona Sat 24-Sep-16 16:13:49

It was a lovely thing to do Gilly, children are very matter of fact.

WilmaKnickersfit Sat 24-Sep-16 17:16:07

Definitely not inappropriate gilly. Each family decides for itself and my thoughts have been changed on this subject (and others) after reading about the experience of other GN members.

Thank you all for sharing.

morethan2 Sat 24-Sep-16 18:01:21

That would do for megillybob very poignant post. flowers for you

leemw711 Sat 24-Sep-16 19:00:24

My granddaughter, then two and a half, visited my husband almost daily when he was in hospital with pneumonia a year ago. She was very close to him and he adored her. Sadly, although we were told he was getting better and would soon be home to convalesce, he died one night and I received that awful phone call... My son coped by telling his little daughter that her grandad was now a star in the sky and each evening she sings to him at bedtime. I hope that somewhere he hears her lovely little voice singing "Twinkle, twinkle, little star"! She also talks to him and when I asked her if he answered, she said "Yes, he tells me jokes". A lovely thought...

Carolebarrel Sat 24-Sep-16 21:02:53

These posts are truly inspiring and heart-warming. I would love to have my family, including my grandchildren, say goodbye to me at the end, if it was possible. I try to tell all my loved ones how much they mean to me whenever I can.

Albangirl14 Sun 25-Sep-16 18:10:14

There is a book for young children called Missing Mummy it is by Rebecca Cobb and is well written with sensitive illustrations.

Bean123 Sat 22-Oct-16 23:02:05

My beloved father died when I was 14. It was at a time when death was a taboo subject and hidden from children. I was never told about my fathers impending death and neither was he, although he probably knew (I later found the rest of my family and elder siblings were aware) I never got to say goodbye to him. Over 40 years later I am still scarred by his death and feel my inability to form a strong and lasting relationship may well be due to this. Although I never speak of it find it hard to forgive the deceit of my family in denying me and him to share our last words of love. Thank goodness times have changed.

gillybob Sat 22-Oct-16 23:28:49

Yes thankfully times have changed Bean123 but your family were probably only doing what they thought was for the best. Shielding you from the sad reality. At 14 you were undoubtedly old enough to understand but your family must have thought they were protecting you.

Some might think that my decision to involve my DGC in my mums death was inappropriate but I stand by both mine and my son and daughter in laws decision that it was absolutely right for us . Six months on, my DGC still visit my dad regularly, they play in the room where they know my mum died and they say things like "I wonder what grandma M is doing now? Will she be watching us playing? She would laugh at that wouldn't she? Etc. I have no regrets whatsoever.

Times have changed and maybe we do not give enough credit to how children have the ability to understand and take things on board. Of course what is right for one family might not be right for another and I totally get that.

I do hope you are able to eventually come to terms with things Bean123 . I wish you well. sunshine

Bean123 Sat 22-Oct-16 23:37:38

You certainly did the right thing and I applaud you for your decision. Yes you are right my family probably thought they were protecting me but I do wish they had been honest. I doubt I will ever forget the pain of that time but hope my story will help persuade others to be more open about death. Managed badly it can have a profound impact on future happiness. Wishing you and your family well x

stanlaw Sun 13-Nov-16 15:29:20

My foster daughter died at 24 of an accidental prescription drugs overdose and we told her daughter aged 4 that she had died but she was happy and she was up above the clouds.
6 months later I took her daughter on holiday on a plane for the first time and as we went up, I said look darling we're going up through the clouds and she shouted for all the plane to hear "we'll see mummy". It took some quick thinking to say that mummy was much higher than that but she took it completely in her stride.

goldengirl Sun 13-Nov-16 16:12:30

When I was 16/17 I was invited to a Saturday night party some way away by a boy I knew well in my year at school. He said he'd drive me there and take me home. I refused - and I can't remember the reason - but on the following Monday in school assembly I learned that he'd taken someone else, had had an accident and the girl had died. It wasn't until I got home that I broke down in tears. There was no counselling in those days but my parents were great [I used to moan about my mother a lot, but she came up trumps]. Would counselling have helped? I don't know. It's offered as a matter of course these days but is it always appropriate? Again I don't know. What I've learned as I've got older is that being honest with children is very important

cookiemonster66 Mon 21-Nov-16 10:06:31

When my nan died, we were worried about telling the kids then aged 7 and 4. The eldest simply said, " dont cry mummy, nanny will be happy now she is with grandad again!" from the mouths of babes!

Yorkshiregel Tue 22-Nov-16 11:02:55

My little GD was quite withdrawn and quiet when we visited them one weekend. My Son said that she had a friend who had a dog that had died. My GD was particularly fond of this dog. I sat with her and told her it was ok to be sad if someone/something is ill and dies but if you talk about them and remember them they don't really die. She took that onboard and it must have helped because she often talked about this dog and the fun they had had when it was alive. She is now 9yrs old and since then they have had two dogs, the first one died of old age and the second, though of the same breed ie a Collie, is now grown in to a fine dog. She says she wants to be a Vet when she is grown up. She loves grooming them and washing them, and even putting cream on their wounds. She also has a cat and a goldfish.

normalnorfolknana Tue 29-Nov-16 08:45:23

My father was a test pilot in the RAF, who was killed in tragic circumstances. At the time I was 14 months old. My mother was almost full term pregnant with my brother, born two weeks after the death. On the advice of her doctor not to attend the funeral she instead pushed me in the pram alongside fields of poppies.

Although understandable, not attending the funeral, however, was HUGE mistake. There was no closure, my mother was suicidal, stating that I was her reason she was alive (of course, I wasn't aware of this until she told me a couple of years later). I grew up with responsibility and took pride at being needed. My overall drive was to protect my mother from pain. Throughout her life she had never accepted my father's death. Small as I was, I witnessed her unbelievable grief and pain. I was anxious never to upset her and was grief-stricken if I felt I had let her down. This underpinned my life and I kept my own grief and very real sense of loss to myself.

My father had been buried miles away, up north. It was only in recent years, following the death of my mother (and that of my stepfather), that I happened to be travelling and found myself in the vicinity and so went in search of my father's grave. Standing there, my grief erupted, after all these years. There was an overwhelming sense of loss, his reality and of closeness. Closure and peace at last.

My children and grandchildren (even when tiny) have been at the funerals of family members and they have coped admirably, at their own level. I would never have denied them this chance to say goodbye.