It takes a huge amount of strength to walk besides someone you love knowing they are dying and then to be left alone with your child.
The child you had planned to bring up together, had assumed would add to your family and who you are adjusting too quite possible at just the same time as you lose your partner and mother of your child – I can’t imagine how hard that would be. And yet you do it, you pick up the pieces and as hard as it feels and as weak and messy as you feel you manage, one moment at time, one day at a time, or at least that is what I have witnessed, that no matter how hard it gets people are amazing and they find the strength to keep going and to provide love and care for their child/children.
My role is a real privilege to watch the strength that families have to build something different together, incorporating that person they love into their life in a new way to deal with what feels overwhelming and impossible to deal with and I’ve found sometimes they don’t even realise they are doing such an enormous and amazing thing and a gentle reminder is useful!
Other things that may help are practice things, when your grieving its those everyday tasks that can feel so hard sometimes – so dropping off some shopping, making a pie etc lets that person know you care and helps out a little – having said that some people feel its having to do those things that keeps them going but don’t be scared to check out with someone – to ask – would this help?
It can be hard to know what to say, that fear you’re going to upset someone if you talk about what happened, but for most people it’s so real and they don’t want it to be left unsaid – so don’t be scared to talk about the person you loved and share those special memories, to acknowledge what has happened even if it’s just to say “ I don’t know what to say – but I’m thinking of you – let me know if I can help “ A little acknowledgement of the grief and a knowing that people care can make all the difference especially after the funeral – that point when people seem to think somehow it’s over now – is often one of the loneliest times, the time when that huge person shaped whole in the world seems most overwhelming as you try to get back to ‘normal’ when things will never be that ‘normal’ again!
Mostly though I guess I’d say respect each person’s grief, we all grieve differently, differently ways of expressing it, different time frames and different ways of dealing with it. Respect that don’t push someone to grief the way you think they should, or assume they are not grieving if they seem to be smiling and getting on with things, and don’t try to tell them they should be over it by now if they are not. I’ve known some people do most of their grieving before the death happens, so they grieve for only a short while afterwards and others who grieve for years and years. There is no right or wrong way to grieve – many people talk about stages of grief – but I sometimes think that make grief sound like something we travel through in a linear fashion – and it’s not – it can be messy and with many twists and turns – one model I quite like is Whirlpool of Grief model taken from
“Good Grief” Ward and associates
Shock numbness and denial as we fall off down that drop – after we find out about the death of or terminal illness of someone we love
Loss and emotional confusion as we swirl around in the whirlpool at the bottom
Being dashed against the rocks – physical and emotional pain
Sometimes being swept into a calm area where it seems ok
And some people get out of this whirlpool and carry on down the river quite soon – moving along as before – but not as before as the world you were in is changed now. Others get stuck in this whirlpool for a while being thrown against rocks, and maybe into and out of calm parts for a long while.
Explaining to children
Pete – There was never going to be any easy way to explain to M what Mummy was now going through and what was very likely to happen in the coming days so I decided to stick to what had always worked her and that was to be honest in a way that she did understand.
I toiled with the idea of taking M in to see Mummy in hospital knowing that seeing her in a now very sick state could be really difficult but I wrestled with the idea that better to have given her that one last chance to see Mummy and get upset rather than not taking her and then in years to come she may have resented me for not having given her that last chance. As it was M was okay on the day and Mummy was able to tell her how much she loved her.
I sat down and slowly reminded M about the lump in Mummy’s booby. I went on to explain that the lump had turned yucky and that it had gone somewhere else where the medicine didn’t work anymore so Mummy had got very sick and would not be able to come home.
How do you explain death to a child? I didn’t have a clue so again I was honest and related it to things that M did understand or know about. I explained that the following week there would be a big party for Mummy where she would be surrounded by her friends and family and she would turn into magic fairy dust which would turn into the brightest star in the sky
If you’re unsure – I suggest always allowing a child to lead by giving them choices, do you want to visit mummy? What songs would you like to have at mummy’s funeral? Do you want to see mum get her hair cut? What shall we do together today? Would you like to know more? Do you have any questions? That way when they are older, there will be less chance of regrets and resentment that they were not allowed that goodbye or those treasured moments together.
Dying is always a tough subject and all the above applies – but the questions that bring up the most fear seem to be – should I allow a child to be there when mum is dying and what about the funeral?
Well, again, you know your child best, but once again choice plays a big part…Ask a child, involve them to the extent they want to be involved, being prepared to know that if your child changes their mind, there is someone and somewhere they can go instead. Some children really value and want to be part of the whole process, including seeing what Mummy looks like after she has died and being at the funeral, others do not, both are ok, we all grieve in our own ways and children are no different. If we accept their choices without judgement then they know that you are there for them to talk to and cry with regardless and that they are safe to explore their choices and change their minds.
Children of different ages do respond differently – younger may not understand what death is and benefit from books and explanations that allow them to explore this – but still its only when mum does not come back for that birthday or has been gone away much longer than usually, that they start to really understand and grieve that she is not returning. Some children really want to explore the details of it, what happens to your body when you die, what is cremation and where do you go? If you can answer them, if it’s too hard and upsetting for you – find someone you trust who can.
But remember children learn most from you – so model that it is ok to cry and to grieve and to look after yourself – they don’t have to be strong all the time, and neither do you!! Also allow them space to be happy, young children can’t handle long periods of grief, so may seem to jump in and out of it – one moment consumed with grief, the next acting like it never happened and completely joyous about the snowman outside!! It’s not because they don’t care – it’s just children don’t have the same emotional capacity we have to stay in grief for long periods. They may also revisit their grief as they grow and their understand grows and deepens, what they understood aged 3 is very different from what they understand aged 13 – so they may grieve over again with this new understanding.
The other big thing I would suggest is don’t use metaphor – we want to make this easier so it’s natural to want to avoid words like dying or death, but it can be confusing for a child. I.e. she has gone to sleep can leave a child terrified of going to sleep or mum has gone away – well why what did I do that’s so bad she left me?
But we all have different beliefs about death and dying, honour your own and find the way that fits for you to tell your child, perhaps also acknowledging that we don’t ever know for sure and there are lots of other beliefs out there – so that when they get older they can feel free to discuss that with you too.
Lastly if you know you’re dying, maybe make a memory box, or book with your child, collect memories and wonderful times together, in fact, making memories with your child in all sorts of forms is good even if you’re not dying – it’s going to happen to us all someday and to have that special box or scrap book is a priceless gift to a child regardless of what lies ahead. And if a parent dies and we didn’t get to do that for whatever reason – then make time to do that with them, make it a special time to collect together and talk together of the person you are all missing, a time when you can bring that special person alive again in your hearts, to cry and laugh and share.
“Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.”
Up In Heaven – Emma Chichester Clark – Anderson Press
The Day the Sea Went Out and Never Came Back – Margot Sutherland – Speechmark Publishing
Gentle Willow, A Story for Children About Dying – Joyce C. Mills, Ph.D. – Magination Press
Muddles, Puddles and Sunshine – Diana Crossley – Hawthorne Press – Produced for Winston’s Wish, The Charity for Bereaved Children
Childhood Bereavement network – do some handy ‘stepping stones cards ‘ These are little cards for children who have a parent or someone else close who is seriously ill – they can’t always ask for what they need these little post cards are a way of letting people know what you need, without having to talk about it email firstname.lastname@example.org
Water bugs and dragonflies by Doris Stickney – a beautiful and simple story that tells us how the water bugs don’t know what happens when they leave the water or why – and how once they turn into a dragon fly they can’t come back and tell the water bugs what it’s like. There is a bit of advice at the end for parents – the only but is in the advice section it does mention god – however if you’re not religious this is still a beautiful story and lovely metaphor about death.
Beginnings and Endings with lifetimes in between by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen – a lovely and beautifully illustrated book that looks at the natural way all things have lifetimes, what that means and how we all have different lengths of lifetimes . Helps children understand that dying is a natural part of living.
No matter What by Debi Gliori – a personal favourite of mine – such a touching story for any child not just those that have been bereaved, about unconditional love and how it goes on even after we have died.
Any of the from me to you books – memory books that you give to someone i.e mum or dad as a gift – they fill it in with lots of memories and give it back to you J by Neil Coxon and available through Amazon – however – you don’t need a book to do this – you can do it with your own scrap book or cardboard box!!! But the books do provide some nice questions you might not have thought of or make lovely gifts to those in your family and it’s a wonderful idea even if nobody is ill and dying!
When Dinosaurs die by Huebner, Dawn and Matthews, Bonnie – a cartoon style book explaining death and dying
The frog that longed for the moon to shine – by Margot Sunderland – is about how life passes us by if we spend it longing and waiting for that someone who is not there – a useful story for a child who seems to be stuck in grief and not taking part in life
I carried you on eagles wings by Sue Mayfield is a touching story for teenagers about a mother who has an illness and not being able to fix those we love
Also for the older age group – there are a variety of stories out there about grief – Examples are Charlotte’s Web, Harry Potter Series and the Never Ending Story.