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When a plaster won’t make it better

‘Let Daddy kiss it better.’ ‘Let’s see if Mummy can fix that.’ Toddlers face small dramas daily, from grazed knees and broken bikes to arguments over toys. But with more complex issues, a simple fix isn’t always possible. We need to dig deeper into our toolbox to discover how we can support these little ones as they face some of life’s challenges.

Death isn’t a subject anyone finds easy to talk about, and we want to protect our toddlers from the pain and confusion it causes. But we can’t always do that. Death is uninvited and can affect all members of the family. Knowing how to speak to and support toddlers at this time can be a real challenge.

Death invaded our family when our seven year-old son died suddenly from a brain haemorrhage. Our younger son was aged three. Nothing prepared us for such a shattering experience and it wasn’t easy for others around us to know how to cope either.

What needed to change, what needed to stay the same?

We found that it helped to adhere to familiar routines as much as possible. When a child’s world has been rocked, their trust in what is secure will be very wobbly. Familiar faces, reassuring routines and lots of love go a long way in such circumstances.

Toddler groups have a wonderful opportunity to provide all of that. Another trusted adult may give the child enough confidence to briefly dare to leave Mum’s side for a few minutes, giving her a welcome break and opportunity to talk about the situation. Following a death in the family she, too, will be grieving, but may feel she must remain strong for her children.

Everyone reacts differently, but remember that children’s grief can be profoundly different to that of adults. A child may:

  • Appear full of energy, constantly running around noisily
  • Cling closely to the person caring for them, unwilling to even give eye contact to others
  • Be fearful of being left and of familiar people leaving the room
  • Withdraw from friendship groups or parental love
  • Demonstrate angry outbursts or crying unexpectedly
  • Begin bedwetting or show other regressive behaviours
  • Have disturbed sleep patterns or be fearful of going to bed

Adults facing a close bereavement find it constantly in their thoughts, whereas children may experience sad moments then suddenly ask to watch their favourite TV programme or ‘when is teatime?’ It may feel like wading through a river of grief for adults, but for children it can appear more like jumping in and out of puddles. Children’s lives move and change quickly, so they need to maintain everyday routines as well as expressing their sadness in their own time and way.

How can we help toddlers?

Children may understand and process the loss of a significant person in their life differently to adults, but their feelings and reactions must be acknowledged and validated. As a toddler group, a joined-up approach should be taken, ensuring everyone is aware of the facts and the planned support and care.

  • Answer questions as truthfully and simply as possible.
  • Don’t be afraid to use the word ‘dead’. Saying ‘gone away’, ‘gone to sleep’ or ‘lost’, could potentially add confusion, misunderstanding or fears.
  • As far as possible, usual rules and boundaries should still apply. Boundaries give safety and security in a world which feels unknown.
  • Encourage leaders to demonstrate boundless patience, reassurance and love, helping the toddler feel safe and loved regardless of their behaviour.
  • Children may express their thoughts and feelings through play or drawing.
  • Allow the toddler to be sad, but also accept that they can still have fun – they may be at both ends of the scale over a very short period.

How can we help parents?

Parents need opportunities to own their own individual grief. Just because they appear fine and organised, doesn’t mean that they don’t need time, care and love.

  • Give parents time away from their children to be able to speak honestly and openly.
  • Arrange to meet up at a time other than during a busy toddler group.
  • Acknowledge that grief can be a long journey. Having a better day doesn’t mean that all is OK.
  • Remember anniversaries and birthdays. Be aware that days such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day can be really difficult times.

Care for the Family has two specialist areas of support for adults who have faced an untimely death:

  • Bereaved Parent Support provides help for any parent whose son or daughter has died at any age, in any circumstances, and at any stage in their journey of grieving.
  • Widowed Young Support provides help for anyone whose partner has died early in life (up to age 50, or older if there are dependent children).

We provide telephone befriending, day and weekend support events, a regular email newsletter, Facebook pages, website resources and short support films in the Bereavement Playlist on Care for the Family’s YouTube channel.

For those looking to support families facing an untimely bereavement, these resources are great to circulate:

Other organisations offering support for children:

  • Child Bereavement UK provides support to families and professionals when a child dies or a child is bereaved of someone important in their lives.
  • Winston’s Wish support bereaved children and young people up to the age of 18 through a range of activities, including a helpline, group work, residential events and resources.