How to talk to your child about death

How to talk to your child about death: Expert says creating a ‘grief first aid kit’ can help parents navigate painful conversations when a loved one dies

  • EXCLUSIVE: Dr Shelley Gilbert, founder of Grief Encounter, shares her tips 
  • Recommends ‘time out’ cards child can show to teacher when they need to
  • Encourage them to use postcards to express things they can’t put into words
  • Dr Gilbert supports re-release of classic Miffy grief book Dear Grandma Bunny  

Speaking to children about a subject as difficult as death is incredibly difficult, but there are ways that adults can tackle painful conversations to help young people process their emotions in a safe and constructive way. 

According to Dr Shelley Gilbert, founder of Grief Encounter, the UK’s leading childhood bereavement charity, techniques such as getting youngsters to use postcards to keep communication open and using a grief ‘first aid kit’ can be incredibly helpful. 

The former Daily Mail Inspirational Woman of the Year Award winner has shared her tips to coincide with the UK re-release of Dick Bruna’s classic Miffy book Dear Grandma Bunny, which tackles death in a way very young children can understand.

When a loved-one dies, it can be very hard to explain to children why death happen; Dr Shelley Gilbert, founder of Grief Encounter, the UK’s leading childhood bereavement charity, says communication is essential to helping youngsters process the loss of a loved one (Stock image)

The story in the new edition, freshly translated by award-winning poet, Tony Mitton explains why it’s alright to feel sad over the loss of a loved one and can be used as one of the tools to help bereaved children. 

1. Be the first to start conversations

Children get the message that death is a difficult and painful subject very quickly – make an environment where they can ask questions openly, be listened to and get real answers.

It is also important to be the first to start conversations.

If the circumstances of their loved ones’ death are difficult or dramatic, be prepared for questions. It is also OK to say ‘I don’t want to tell you now but I will one day’. 

Saying this keeps the conversations open – and importantly the child knows you can be trusted.


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2. Use a postcard system

Above everything, keep communication open and in doing so, use honest words. We’d advise against saying ‘gone to sleep’ and other euphemisms, as these are confusing and don’t convey the finality of what’s happened. 

Reading books such as ‘Dear Grandma Bunny’ and ‘Chocolate Chipped: a smelly book about grief’ are a great way to explain death to younger children and open up conversations.

When the child has a language they understand how to use, you could encourage them to use a ‘postcard’ system to tell you how they want to be spoken to; The Grief Encounter Workbook postcard suggests ‘Things I can’t tell you, but want you to know’ with tick boxes indicating what triggers their emotions or what they want to be told.

Dr Shelley Gilbert recommends using a book such as the classic Miffy tale, Dear Grandma Bunny, to talk to children about loss in a way they can understand

3. Create a grief ‘first aid kit’ 

It’s common for a child’s grief to either surface several weeks or months after the death of a loved one, or seemingly dissolve to only then re-appear in waves. 

In this instance, it’s important that children feel like they have a tool they can use to navigate through the tough periods.

Help them to create a ‘First Aid Kit’ filled with things that can give them a boost and a sense of comfort when they need it most. 

Maybe it is a playlist of songs, a ‘worry box’ for depositing worries, the perfume or aftershave of their lost loved one, or a diary for writing down their feelings. 

This can be a completely private box that they have control over and access whenever they need it.

4. Make a ‘love lexicon’

Memories are a way to keep a loved one alive and present as the child grows and learns more about them. 

At Grief Encounter, the team promote therapeutic craft activities such as Memory Jars or Sand Art, poetry and letter writing. Why not create a memory box, a fact file, or a dictionary of their loved one.

Note down their favourite ice cream flavour, their favourite colour, their top 10 books. Fill it with pictures, make drawings of their favourite places, holidays or events. 

You can even take favourite items of clothing and have them crafted into a soft toy, or a quilt to keep close by. 

Perhaps even plant a tree somewhere they enjoyed going together that can be a place they visit as years pass like Miffy does to remember her Grandmother in Dear Grandma Bunny.

5. Try ‘teacher time out cards’

A support network is vital in moving forward through the grieving process and navigating out of the isolation that bereavement can bring. 

Seek out the people that the child trusts and confides in; this could be a favourite teacher, a mentor, a best friend, a counsellor or even an older sibling. 

The classic Miffy tale Dear Grandma Bunny has been re-released in the UK and can be used as a tool to talk to children about loss 

That team will be invaluable in providing an ear when the child is ready to talk, a partner for playing when they want to express themselves, and a shoulder to cry on when they need comfort. 

Sometimes, the child might need encouragement to seek out their team; at Grief Encounter, ‘grief relief kits’ are provided to all children, which include journals and workbooks to help them make sense of their feelings after a bereavement. 

One of the things included are Teacher Time Out Cards, a card to give to a teacher at school which tells the staff member they need a five-minute break on their own if they are finding everything too much. Things like this help children remember that everyone is on their team. 

During Children’s Grief Awareness Week, (November 15-21 2018), children’s bereavement charity Grief Encounter’s ‘Forever Night’ (November 15th in London) invites bereaved children to come together for communal craft and play activities to remember loved ones with other bereaved families. griefencounter.org.uk

Dear Grandma Bunny, Simon & Schuster UK, is available from Waterstones, priced from £4.99 (hardback)

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