EVE SIMMONS: How to tell children that someone they loved has died – as I was just 11 when told my father had terminal cancer
Amid the flood of tributes to Love Island presenter Caroline Flack, who died last month at the age of 40, it was one of the most poignant. An image, posted on Instagram, showed the TV star cuddling best friend Lou Teasdale’s then 11-month-old baby, Lux.
Alongside it, make up artist Lou, 36, wrote: ‘This little lady misses you “Calorine”. Anyone have any nice advice for me with an eight-year-old learning about grief?’
It is a plea that will, undoubtedly, chime with many parents – given that huge numbers of Flack’s devoted fans were youngsters. Last week, Winston’s Wish, the charity for bereaved children, said it had been inundated with calls asking this very same question.
Big favourite: Caroline Flack with a young fan at the launch of the River Island collection last year. The Love Island presenter died last month at the age of 40
There is an important need for parents to tackle this conversation, no matter how difficult, they said.
The charity’s helpline practitioner, Kate Pickering, added: ‘If mums and dads don’t address things honestly, children will seek out that information and may come to their own conclusions, which are often far scarier than the reality.’
I understand the importance of these conversations – because I’ve been that child. In 2004, my father, Jeff, died aged just 49, a few days before my 13th birthday.
His death followed an agonising six-year illness with a rare type of nasal cancer which I’ve written about previously.
The discussions I had as a young teenager about my father’s untimely death were some of the most painful I’ve ever had to endure.
With the tragedy of Caroline Flack in mind, I sought the help of the experts to find out how to muddle through the hardest of conversations.
Just how do you help children understand grief?
My dad didn’t want to talk about dying
I’ll always remember the day I found out that my dad would die sooner than everyone else’s.
I was 11 and my brother, Sam, was 14. While we knew he was ill – and could see the scars on his post-op face – death was never a possibility. It simply couldn’t be.
Until Mum told us that, actually, it was pretty much certain.
I understand the importance of these conversations – because I’ve been that child. In 2004, my father, Jeff, died aged just 49, a few days before my 13th birthday (pictured: Eve Simmons)
‘Dad has something called “terminal cancer”,’ she said while all four of us sat huddled on the sofa.
Registering our confused expressions, she added: ‘This means he will die from this. But we don’t know when…’
I don’t remember much after that moment, apart from a lot of crying. But I do recall my father – an English teacher who was never short of words – staying uncharacteristically quiet. ‘He simply couldn’t talk about it,’ my mother Michele, now in her early 60s, says when I ask her about it. ‘The thought that he wouldn’t be there to see you two grow up, go to university, get married – it was just too painful.’
Death-wise, that was as detailed as it got. My parents preferred to preserve the ounce of normality we had left, rather than fill our evenings with emotional conversations about what happens next.
Be honest about reasons why people take their own lives
Sadly, tragic cases such as Caroline Flack’s are common.
More than 5,000 Britons die by suicide every year – many of them parents.
‘It’s rare that a day at work goes by without suicide coming up at least once,’ says Kate Pickering of children’s grief-counselling charity Winston Wish’s. The key to explaining what’s gone wrong is distinguishing between healthy sadness and clinical mental illness.
‘Mention a diagnosis such as depression or schizophrenia,’ advises Kate.
‘Saying that someone died because they were “sad” is not helpful – everyone gets sad. Speak about the brain being poorly.’
Also crucial is making it clear to children that it wasn’t their fault. ‘Sometimes an argument may have preceded the suicide, which makes children feel they are to blame,’ says Kate.
‘Don’t dismiss it – they need to know it’s a normal thing to feel.
‘But explain very clearly that nothing anyone could have done would have made a difference – their brain was so unhealthy, it made them feel they had no choice.’
Perhaps neither was quite ready to believe it. But this meant waking up every morning, for the following two years, expecting that day to be ‘the day’, and sleepless nights while my young brain envisaged disturbing images of what death might look like.
Even now, talking through what happened on the day he died – or what death really means – is difficult. Maybe if it was regularly discussed, this wouldn’t be the case.
There’s no doubt, according to Kate Pickering, that honesty is the best policy. ‘Everyone wants to protect their child by not discussing painful things,’ she says. ‘But children will experience those feelings of desperate sadness, whatever happens.
‘And they need to learn that those feelings are OK, and how to manage them.’
There is, however research to show that forcing the conversation on children, out of nowhere, can be counter-productive.
Child psychiatrist Dr Sarah Vohra says: ‘It’s a delicate balance. Take cues from the child and respond to questions or reactions they might have to what they already know.
‘This might be triggered by something they’ve noticed, like a change in routine.’
Don’t shy away from words like ‘cancer’
Even now, at the age of 28, I often struggle to muster the words ‘my dad died’. Something about it seems excruciatingly final.
But using abstract metaphors won’t make it any less painful for children. Kate says: ‘Don’t say things like, “Mummy has a poorly tummy.” We all get poorly tummies, but we don’t all die from them.
‘Instead, say that the doctors are trying as hard as they can to make the cancer smaller. Young children might not know what cancer means but it’s important to still say it so it’s in their vocabulary.’
Most parents will have at least a week or so’s notice before the end of a loved one’s life.
So be as honest as you can about expectations. ‘Doctors should be able to advise about when to have the conversation,’ says Kate. ‘It’s important to say if they aren’t going to live for much longer.
‘Often children who aren’t given a proper opportunity to come to terms with it and say goodbye can feel resentful.’
The advice is to use the same clarity in the aftermath, too.
Dr Vohra says: ‘If you say something like “Nana has gone to the clouds”, young children especially take that very literally and may think the loved one has travelled and is still existing somewhere else. It just drags out the confusion. So just state very clearly what has happened, using the term “died”.’
And use the physical elements of death, too. Kate suggests saying, “Our heart beats, which keeps our body alive, but their heart has stopped beating.” ’
As for burials and cremations, Kate advises saying something such as: ‘Our bodies are alive, so if we were in a coffin or touched something hot, it would be horrible, but if our bodies don’t work, we won’t feel it.’
Of course, many wish to discuss religious ideas of death, such as heaven. But steer clear of these explanations until you’re sure that children have grasped the physical facts.
Kate says: ‘Over the age of about six, you can talk about the “spirit” of someone – and where you think the spirit may be – while clearly explaining that a spirit is different to the physical body.’
Try not to disrupt the child’s routine
A week after my dad died in May 2004, Mum took us to a support group for fellow bereaved children. As moody teenagers, we were at least ten years older than the other children, who were told to express their feelings via colouring books and face paints.
Needless to say, we left within minutes. The experience of bereavement aged four will be vastly different for a teenager.
Kate says: ‘Before the age of about six, children aren’t able to fully comprehend what’s happened.’
And for toddlers, the grief often plays out when they notice a disruption to daily routine.
Ask a stupid question
Does eating lots of eggs make you constipated?
London dietician Catherine Collins says: ‘No – providing you’re eating enough fibre, found in fruit, vegetables and carbohydrates. The myth of being “egg-bound” has been circulating for years. People have incorrectly translated the binding function of eggs during cooking to the effect on digestion.
‘Eggs are the most digestible and absorbable type of protein, so none ends up in the toilet. If you’re eating a normal, balanced diet including some bread and plenty of fruit and veg, there won’t be any effect on bowel movements.’
Roxanne Caplan, Parents Helpline Manager at the charity Young Minds, said: ‘Say, for example, a parent isn’t around to play with them at the usual time of day, or pick them up from school.
‘It’s a common trigger for anxiety and panic.’
She advises trying to keep the routine as regular as possible. ‘Keep a diary or note down any obvious triggers so you and the child are prepared.’
For older children, grief often manifests in other, hidden ways.
Kate says: ‘Anger is very common. Sometimes it’s directed at another member of the family or the child presents challenging behaviour at school. ‘It’s their way of making sense of something that feels so unfair.’
Others shut themselves off altogether – especially teenage boys.
‘Commonly, boys don’t want to talk about it, or, if it’s the dad who has died, they adopt the “man of the house” mentality, so won’t cry in front of mum.’
So should parents force moody teens to open up? ‘No, it’ll turn them away from you,’ says Kate.
Instead, encourage teenagers to engage with activities that allow them to release some of the pent-up emotion.
‘Perhaps they can join a boxing club or introduce a “feelings jar”. Children can write down how they are feeling on a piece of paper and put it in a jar, so they can get their thoughts out without having to say them.’
Tell school teachers before kids go back
Even if a child wishes everything to remain the same, it’s still important that adults acknowledge it.
‘Sometimes there’s a temptation to just act normal if the child themselves seems unchanged,’ says Kate. ‘But this diminishes their experience. We tell teachers to say they are “sad” to hear the loved one has died, rather than “sorry”, because that implies it’s someone’s fault.’
With young children, ask staff to tell the class before they go back to school. ‘Kids will be extra kind and won’t ask grieving children difficult questions.’
Memories help with the grieving process
Both Winston’s Wish and Young Minds see a spike in calls to their helpline at Christmas.
Birthdays, anniversaries and other personal dates are similarly busy.
‘A young boy called during the start of the Six Nations Rugby tournament last month,’ Kate recalls. ‘This was the first year that Dad wasn’t here to watch it with him.’
So do you carry on as normal?
Roxanne says: ‘First, acknowledge the event that’s coming up and ask children what they want to do.’
Reinacting a family tradition exactly as it was often makes it all the more obvious that someone is missing. Kate suggests trying something completely different, such as ‘jumping on a plane to Spain for a week’.
But don’t be afraid to acknowledge the person who would usually be there. ‘You can do it in a subtle, positive way,’ Kate says. ‘For instance if you’re eating pizza, and it’s something you used to do together before mum died, talk about her favourite toppings, or if you notice the child has similar eyes or an expression.’
She said it’s important to keep these mini-memories going, even years down the line.
It’s certainly a message that I find comforting as, 15 years after Dad’s death, I still get the urge to watch a family video – just to hear his voice.
‘The grief never gets smaller,’ says Kate. ‘There will always be times when a smell, sound or sight transports you back to the day someone died and it feels all-consuming. But it’s all a normal part of the grieving process.’
What to read, watch and do
Everything That Makes Us Human: Case Notes Of A Children’s Brain Surgeon, by Jay Jayamohan
A gripping account of day-to-day life for a consultant paediatric neurosurgeon at a busy Oxford hospital, from delivering the worst news to desperate parents to heart-warming happy endings.
£6.99, Michael O’Mara
100 Kilo Kids: Obesity SOS
A peek behind the curtain of Britain’s leading childhood obesity clinic at Bristol Royal Hospital for Children. One of the patients is 14-year-old Tommy, right, whose ever-increasing weight is forcing him to consider a drastic last resort.
Wednesday, 9pm, Channel 4
Body & Mind Seen & Unseen exhibition
A creative exploration of what it truly means to be ‘well’. From detailed scans of brain slices to sculptures created as part of an artist’s recovery from illness, every piece of work is beautiful and thought-provoking.
National Centre for Craft and Design, Sleaford, Lincs. Free.
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