Children and Sudden Death: The challenge of what to say and how to support them

In this blog, Clinical Psychologist Dr Laura Williams talks about how to talk with children about unexpected death, reflecting on her own personal experiences.

I am currently writing a book that details my family’s experience of sudden death. I started writing almost immediately after my husband died two and half years ago. It was like I knew intuitively that it would help me and perhaps even go some way to healing me. As part of the process, I have recently been reviewing diary entries that talk of how I told my then five-year-old daughter that her Daddy had died and was never coming home.

Thinking back now to when I was told that there was no hope for my husband’s recovery, one of my very first thoughts extended to what and how I would tell my children. My heart splintered into a million pieces in that moment, knowing that I would have to go home and say the words that would alter their world forever. My daughter adored her Daddy, the way that little girls do. I imagine for most who experience sudden death, telling the news to other family members, particularly children, is a worry. How should I do it? When is the right time? What should I say? As a clinical psychologist, I had some confidence that I had a good sense of what and how to say it. But my academic understanding of how to approach this with three young children, didn’t make the emotions of it any less overwhelming.

What was clear to me from the very beginning was that truthfulness was key. But, in my view, this should always be tempered by the age and developmental stage of the individual child. At the time my husband died, my twin boys were just two years old. Developmentally, they were not able to understand in the same way as their sister. That didn’t mean that they couldn’t or shouldn’t be told the truth. Simply, it meant that language had to be uncomplicated and literal. I think it is very important that when we are communicating about death we do so clearly. Language around death has long been problematic. It is something nobody wants to face and the language can unfortunately reflect that. Imagine a child trying to understand for example ‘Daddy is now a star in the sky’, or ‘Daddy has gone to a better place’. The multitude of questions children might have following those statements is obvious. ‘How did he become a star?’ ‘Can’t he come back to visit us?’

No. I opted for the tragic and awful truth. Daddy became unwell.  His heart stopped and the doctors couldn’t fix it. Daddy died and that means his body doesn’t work anymore. He can never come home. It was not censored or comfortable. But, it was a truth they could understand. And, it was a truth that I could help them to process emotionally over time. 

The other thing that is important, is repetition. If you look at this as perhaps the child’s first experience of death, something which they have never or rarely spoken about to adults, you must also see it as a process. One in which they are learning and assimilating the information as they go. This cannot be a ‘one and done’ thing. They will invariably ask questions again and again, as they reach developmental milestones that mean they can think about it from different perspectives, other than their own. Consistency in what they are told is crucial.

Another core challenge with sudden death is that parents quite often have limited time to think about how and what they will say to their children about what has happened. For me, it was the length of the drive home from the hospital; a mere 20 minutes. The other factor here is that the very nature of a sudden death means that the death itself is often traumatic. It may have been due to suicide, a medical anomaly, substance misuse, a road traffic collision or violence inflicted by another. These are things that we naturally wish to protect our children and young people from. The trouble with this, however, is that when their world has been so shaken, protecting them by sugar-coating it, or offering an altered version of events, is just not helpful. It merely boxes away the pain, to be opened and tackled another day. And if on that day, years from now, that child realises that they have not only experienced death of a loved one, but have also been told a version of events that was not strictly true, it can compound negative feelings around an already life-changing event. That does not mean telling children things that are not appropriate for them to hear. It simply means, telling them however much of the truth that they can cope with at that time and ensuring that the door is open to talk about it whenever they choose to. 

My husband died on the last day of the school term in 2018. My children and I spent the summer without time apart. My daughter returned to her second year at primary school, eight weeks after her Dad’s death. We were incredibly fortunate that when she did, she returned to a teacher who had herself experienced a significant loss as a child. I met with both the head teacher and class teacher beforehand. It was agreed that the children in her class would be told. My daughter was given a special token that she could give to her teacher. If she did, it meant that she felt sad or needed some time out. She could take one friend to support her. In the end, I think she used her token just once. However, knowing it was there was a comfort to me and to her I think. It acknowledged her loss, as I tried to navigate the balance of the trauma she had suffered and my belief that her routine should be followed as much as possible. 

Reading this, you may be second guessing what you may have already said to children under these trying circumstances. Children are remarkably resilient in the face of adversity. I have seen this strength in my own and it sometimes takes my breath away how far they have come. There is always an opportunity to make a choice to be more upfront in how you speak to children about these issues. I believe that choice will serve both you and them well in the future.

My final point is a hopeful one. I talk to my children about their Daddy all the time. Not just about what happened, but about who he was and how he loved them. That love didn’t die. Keeping the conversation going ensures that his love for them can be felt and experienced forever. 

About the author

Dr Laura Williams is a Clinical Psychologist and Director of Insight Psychology and  Consultancy. You can read more of her experiences of sudden death here on Facebook or on her website.

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