When supporting bereaved families, we often talk about the importance of honest and open communication. Open family communication is one of the most important ways to help children and young people adjust after the death of a loved one. Our experience tells us that children and young people who talk and grieve together with their surviving parent tend to cope better after a death than those who do not.
It’s easy to understand why open communication might be important. We all grieve differently and experience different emotions during our grief journey, even when we are grieving the death of the same person. Communicating our thoughts and feelings can help all family members to feel understood and get the support they need. It can also help to avoid misunderstandings that come from interpreting each other’s behaviour as an indication of how they might be feeling.
We know that bereaved families can struggle with talking to each other. Parents, children and young people frequently tell us that knowing when and how to talk with each other about their grief can be really difficult. Everyone hides their feelings sometimes. Parents may keep information from their children in order to protect them from potentially upsetting details about a death. Children and young people will avoid talking about feelings of sadness or sharing bad days as a way of protecting adults from becoming upset. Families sometimes develop spoken or unspoken rules regarding how often and when they may talk about the deceased parent.
For families who may want some support with how to open communication, here are some tips and activities which may help to start conversations:
Talk in Parallel
Think about what you were doing the last time you had a good conversation with your child. The best conversations are often had incidentally when you are doing other things – maybe you were out on a walk or driving to school, cooking together or just catching up before bed. It’s often easier to talk when conversations happen naturally and start as you are doing other things. It often feels easier to talk when you are not looking at each other or in a parallel position. Too often we may avoid talking because we worry that the conversations need to be deep or intense. Children and young people tend to open up more easily in the middle of doing other things.
seize the moment
Children will tend to talk about someone who has died when something specific triggers their thoughts. For example, something that reminded them of a specific incident or seeing a place they had once visited with that person. These can be good opportunities to share your memories together. If this happens, you could try and seize the opportunity to encourage your child to continue talking and gently encourage them to talk about how they are feeling. Even brief conversations can be enough to share a difficult feeling. Be open to talking about all kinds of feelings, including anger, joy, frustration, fear and anxiety. This helps your child develop a ‘feelings vocabulary’.
Children who are grieving usually want to be heard rather than ‘fixed’. Validating feelings means offering a simple and kind acknowledgement of what the other person has told you without jumping to make them feel better for example, “It sounds like you are feeling really sad because you are missing Daddy today?” or “You seem really angry. Is that what’s going on?” Adults are sometimes nervous about offering validation of a child’s difficult feelings because they worry that it might make them feel worse or make the pain more real. It won’t. A simple acknowledgement can help your child feel supported and understood and that is likely to make them feel more able to open up in the future.
For children who find it difficult to talk, it might help to start a conversation while doing an activity together. Here are some ideas for activities that you could try:
This is a great activity for encouraging children to express their emotions in a fun and casual way. It can open up lines of communication and sends the message that the adults in the home support open expression and feel that it’s important. It also gives children control over when and how they express their thoughts and feelings. Place a large sheet of paper on a wall in a communal space. Label one side for ‘positive’ feelings and the other side for ‘negative’ feelings (you could also label with words like ‘Good Days’ & ‘Bad Days’ or ‘Good feelings’ & ‘Bad feelings’). Let everyone know that the wall is for expressing their thoughts and feelings. They can do this by writing words or drawing pictures whenever they feel like it. They can be free to add photographs, newspaper clippings, pictures from magazines, or anything else that says something about them or reminds them of their loved one (in both good and bad ways).
Create a family flag to represent your family’s grief journey. Use fabric of choice and cut to desired size. Hem and sew seam along the side to put flagpole through. Decorate or embellish as you choose. Use pictures/embellishments that remind you of your loved one or your family’s journey through grief. Display your flag to represent love for the past and hope for the future
The grief puzzle is a great activity to do with your family to show how grief is a different experience for each person. Cut a large piece of paper into puzzle pieces (make sure that everyone has at least one puzzle piece). Choose which prompt (from below) you would like to represent on your puzzle piece. Using pictures, drawings, designs, or words, color your puzzle piece to represent your answer to the prompt. When everyone has completed their puzzle piece, assemble the puzzle together.
Puzzle piece prompts:
If grief was a colour… If grief was a song…
If grief was an animal… If grief was a flavour…
If grief was a building… If grief was a sound..
Using “transitional” objects like jewellery can be a good way for children to tell a story about their deceased loved one. For this activity, go to any craft shop and pick out beads that represent your loved one. You can pick beads for their favourite colour, or a favourite holiday or something that represents one of their characteristics. Once you’re back at home, get some string, and put your bracelets together. Making bracelets together can be a lovely way of sharing your memories.