How do you open up a dialogue with death for you to have with your children? Adam Lanigan spoke to a child psychologist to find out more.
It’s one of those moments that we will never forget – where we were when we found out that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II had died. So it was on the evening of Thursday 8 September, at the age of 96 and after 70 years on the throne, news of the late monarch’s passing was announced. For ten days, the United Kingdom was in a state of mourning as we witnessed public events that few of us had ever seen in our lifetimes.
What it also ensured was that death was at the centre of public life for an unprecedented period. It was on our televisions, on our radios, in our conversations – impossible to ignore. And if we could not escape it, then neither could our children. Death is often a subject we want to brush under the carpet and think of it as something that will affect us a long time ahead in the future. But life is not that simple. We are not always sure about we feel about death ourselves, let alone trying to explain it to our children. Adam Lanigan asked Educational and Child Psychologist Dr Rosie Freedman about how the Queen’s death was actually a good chance to bring this sensitive conversation into the family home.
“Death is a natural part of life, which we are all going to experience,” says Dr Freedman. “The death of a very prominent public figure like the Queen and not a loved one and therefore without the emotional baggage, is a good way to explain the topic and open up those conversations on the subject. I know at home with my two girls, aged six and three, that they saw things on the television and started asking me questions.
For most children, hopefully their first significant experience of death is the death of a pet or a grandparent. Children feel different things at different ages. Under-twos will have very little understanding of death and will lack the language skills needed to explore the topic, however they will still experience grief and need comfort in response to the absence of a loved one. From aged three to five, children can understand what death is, but they do not realise that it is permanent. That becomes the case for children from the ages of six to nine. They begin to understand that death is final.
Everyone’s life is so busy now that finding the right time for conversations around death is key. It’s certainly not a chat to have during a stressful school run, for example. You need to be in a relaxing environment, so that might be with your children doing a jigsaw or some colouring where you have the time and space to talk about things openly and calmly.
One of the key things when talking about death is using very clear language. Saying things like the person has ‘gone to sleep’ or ‘we’ve lost Grandma’ are not helpful to a young child. They are not clear enough as the child may worry what if the deceased wakes up and they are trapped or they are lost in a geographical sense and why are we not trying to find them. We should address it from a biological standpoint by using terminology such as the body has stopped working or they can’t do anything they could when they were alive, such as breathing, thinking, or feeling.
We cannot be worried about talking about death. There is the comparison with plants and nature where we talk openly about plants dying if they don’t have enough water. We need to be reassuring though, and one of the things about the Queen is that she was 96 and so it is easy to explain that people generally do not die until they are very old, and the Queen was certainly that.
Because it is so emotive, we have made death a taboo subject. But the more we talk about it, the better a child can be prepared to deal with it when it comes around in their own lives. Another thing is that we sometimes think that our children must not see us upset but seeing parents upset can be helpful, as kids learn that it is OK to feel these emotions, as well as learning what strategies they can use to manage them.
Death is a natural occurrence and it’s fine to feel the emotions it brings. The important thing is that we explain these emotions and deal with them together as a family.”