Let’s Talk To Children About Dying

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Brits struggle to talk about death. A 2015 survey by the Dying Matters Coalition found that nearly three-quarters of us believe that our fellow Britons are uncomfortable discussing bereavement.

But we know that the right words can have immense power throughout the bereavement process.

And knowing what to say to a child or young person can be particularly important for teaching staff when you hear that on average one child in every classroom has been bereaved of a parent or sibling.

North London Hospice and Noah’s Ark Children’s Hospice have developed expertise in helping young people work through their grief and offer bereavement training to teaching staff.

Going to a better place


Catherine Toohey, Head of Family Link and Therapies at Noah’s Ark Children’s Hospice, discusses the right and wrong ways to talk about bereavement

Mainstream society often uses terrible euphemisms to describe dying. Someone has “passed on” or “passed away”; like second-hand clothing. We’ve “lost someone”; will we find them later? And the one that really bothers me – they’ve “gone to a better place”; as if death and the seaside are somehow placed on a par!

Supporting young people, in particular, facing bereavement needs care, thought and great tact.

Using the right words

When speaking to a young person who has faced bereavement, the greatest challenge is how to actively listen to them. It’s something that even those who are highly experienced at communicating with children, such as teachers, need to keep at the front of their mind. ‘Active listening’ means being led by the person who you are speaking to, rather than thinking what you’re going to say next; it means acknowledging their situation; and, most importantly, it means that when you do talk, trying to find the right words.

There is no ‘right way’ to respond and therefore finding the ‘right words’ is hard, but there are ways to avoid the wrong words, for example by avoiding unhelpful comments such as ‘I know how you feel’ or ‘they’ve gone to a better place’.

People are understandably concerned about saying the wrong thing, which can stop them reaching out to a bereaved person. But it’s so often just the being there, being present, that is the most important thing to do.

Charities like Noah’s Ark and North London Hospice have developed learning in how active listening enables people to work through their grief. If you work in education or with teaching staff, you will find our ‘Supporting Young People Facing Bereavement’ one-day course on 6 March 2020 provides tools to support children at this vulnerable time in their lives. To find out about our bereavement training, click here.

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