Ok, there, I’ve said it – let’s talk about death. Not a nice subject and very emotive but sometimes it has to be discussed...
The death of a loved one – the death of a childminded child’s parent – the death of a young child – the death of a family member or beloved pet. How do you deal with it? What do you say? How do you explain what has happened? How do you prepare children if you know death is imminent? What about sudden unexpected death – the parent who does not arrive to collect their child? How do you cope with death and the aftermath?
We all have our own coping mechanisms and ways of managing. We all say different things to children about death depending on our individual beliefs.
However, when we are caring for a childminded child and someone or a pet dies, many childminders struggle to know what to say and do next. They don’t want to offend the child’s family but at the same time they need to stay true to their own beliefs.
It is important that we raise the subject of death with children. This can begin very early when they start to understand the seasons and the passing of time – they learn that flowers and trees die in the autumn and grow again in spring. Children can then start to learn through conversation and discussion that while this happens to flowers and trees it does not happen when people or animals die.
Do you have a fish tank? Fish die quite regularly and the children will quickly learn that death means they disappear from the tank. They can be replaced with new fish of course – which you cannot do when a grandma or favourite uncle dies. Similarly, a much loved family dog might die and a little while later the children will be excitedly choosing a new puppy … so again, we need to support children as they learn that the death of fish and animals, like plants, is slightly different to the death of a person.
However, there are so many euphemisms for death – passing over, visiting the angels, resting in the sky, with the stars, gone to sleep - are just a few. These might be very confusing for a child and may lead the child to think that the dead person is coming back just like the flowers! They might think the dead person is visiting heaven like they visit the zoo and be waiting for them to reappear.
It is important to talk to the children’s parents about what they are saying to their child about the death – and to emphasise the importance of finality in the words that are used. A dead person, unlike a tree, plant, replaced fish etc is not coming back.
Talking to parents
We must always ask parents what they might want us to say about death. Yes, I know, this is not an easy subject to raise and some families might feel awkward if their feelings about death have been repressed or confused over the years.
However, they should respect your need to understand how they are dealing with the subject at home. For example, do the family believe in heaven or an afterlife? Do they believe that they will come back as animals or insects? Do they teach their children that death is final or a journey to another world?
You also need to find out how the family are managing the death. Are there lots of relatives in the house crying all day? Has the child’s routine been completely disrupted? Are they going to be more tired than normal? How might the family’s grief impact on the child? Sometimes, struggling through the day is the best you will manage to achieve in the early stages of grieving.
Explain to parents that you need to know these things so you do not confuse the child. If they are reticent to tell you, reinforce that your job is to put their child’s needs first and, to do that, you need to understand their child’s life at home.
Get in touch with your own emotions
Think about how you deal with death – this will be linked to your life experiences and the ways death has been explained to you. If you are in touch with your own feelings on the subject you will be better placed to support the child. If you need help, ask for it! Nobody hands out medals to childminders who are struggling to cope with something and end up ill as a result – we all need to ask for help from time to time.
There are clear and defined stages of grieving that everyone – children and adults – go through when they learn that someone has died. This is a good link which explains it very sensitively - http://singleparents.about.com/od/communicatingwiththekids/a/stages_of_grief.htm.
Teaching and learning opportunities
Respecting the feelings of others is an important part of helping children to cope with death. If they do not understand why someone is crying then they will not be able to stop themselves from saying or doing things that might cause others hurt. Some children do laugh when you talk about death – but this might simply be their coping mechanism if they feel uncomfortable or anxious in a situation. If you know the child well you will be able to support them through their reaction and help them to manage their own feelings of awkwardness or repressed grief.
Ask for a photo or small memories of the dead person which you can keep in a special little booklet or decorated memory box for the child to look at during the day. It is important that children are allowed to remain in contact with the dead person and they will find it comforting. It will also help them to grieve in a supportive environment with lots of time, conversation and cuddles available to them.
Helping children to learn about their emotions is a key part of PSED as we teach children to verbalise how they are feeling. Resources such as books, feelings fans, posters, drawings, mirrors etc will all support children to talk about their feelings rather than hold them in or hide them. Similarly, children (all children – boys and girls) need to know that it is ok to cry. I’ve heard parents say - often to boys – ‘don’t cry, be a big man’ – but crying is good and cathartic and part of the grieving process. This enforced repression of emotions should be avoided.
Next time you spot a dead bird or animal don’t walk past – stop and talk to the children about it. Show them that the bird is dead – it is not moving and will never fly again. If they are interested or they have some experience of death in their family, they might ask to bury the bird – it would be good if you can support this extension of their interest by maybe saying some prayers (within the child’s belief system) or some comforting words before moving on.
If children say something that upsets you about the death of a loved one, be ready with some activities to support their understanding. They are not being deliberately cruel, they simply do not have the capacity to deal with crying adults or half stories about angels and heaven. Even young children can be supported to understand that they need to show understanding of the needs of others – a little empathy with some sympathy thrown in can make a big difference. A 3 / 4 year old should have enough understanding of how to behave so that others are not upset by their actions after a 3 or 4 year focus on PSE development as required by the EYFS.
Books to support learning
There are lots of books on Amazon or Play.com such as –
• Everybody Feels Sad by Jane Bingham (Crabtree)
• Granddad’s Bench by Addy Farmer (Walker)
• Water Bugs and Dragonflies by Doris Stickney (Looking Up)
• Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley (Andersen)
• Always and Forever by Alan Durant (Picture Corgi)
And many more … your library should be able to recommend some good ones.
Resources to support learning
Many childminders have an empathy doll who talks to the children about difficult situations in their lives. The doll sits on the shelf watching the children – rather than playing directly with them – and comes down from the shelf to chat.
An empathy doll is very useful in these situations because s/he can share stories with the children and listen to them or give them a hug when they need one – especially if you are busy dealing with other children and the child cannot wait for support – or if you are struggling with your own emotions and need a moment to collect yourself.
It is important that you keep talking about the person who has died. Just because they are not here any more does not mean they have vanished from the child’s memory. Observe the child and if they seem to be struggling during the day, give them a quiet, cosy place to go and daydream – children do not need to be distracted all the time with activities and singing and dancing and games – sometimes they need time to sit quietly and grieve.
Children’s behaviour can often be affected when they are grieving and it is important that you have systems in place to support them. Make sure they understand that while the inappropriate behaviour is not and will never be acceptable you understand why it is happening and you are always there for them.
And… remember… if you are struggling, ask your colleagues for confidential support. You don’t have to deal with it on your own.
Mini e-book 51 from www.knutsfordchildminding.co.uk discusses offering end of life care for childminded children.