Deborah James: How to prepare children for a loved one's death

·Yahoo Life UK contributor
·5 min read
Deborah James has revealed she is now in end-of-life hospice care at home, pictured in April 2019. (Getty Images)
Deborah James has revealed she is now in end-of-life hospice care at home, pictured in April 2019. (Getty Images)

Deborah James has opened up about saying goodbye to her loved ones, revealing she has had "hard conversations" with her two children about her death.

The 40-year-old You, Me, And The Big C presenter, who was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2016, revealed earlier this week that she is now in end-of-life hospice care at home, surrounded by her loved ones.

"I have a really loving family who I adore and couldn’t… they’re just incredible," Deborah said of her husband, Sebastien Bowen, and their children, Hugo, 14, and Eloise, 12.

"And all I knew I wanted was to come here and be able to relax, knowing that everything was okay," she continued.

"We’ve had some really, really hard conversations in the last week. You think, gosh, how can anybody have those conversations and then you just find yourself in the middle of them."

How to prepare children for loss

Losing a loved one is a heartbreaking experience at any age. But for children, who often find it difficult to understand their feelings, coping with an upcoming bereavement can be a real struggle.

But while difficult, preparing a young person for the news that someone they’re close to isn’t going to get better is an important aspect of the grieving process.

"Preparing children for the death of a loved one is important but often something that is replaced by wanting to protect them," explains grief coach, Dipti Solanki.

"It's really natural to want to shield them from the reality of death and the sorrow that can ensue - so it can be a double-edged sword.

"But when we fail to prepare children, it can lead to anxiety and depression further down the line for them because there are often so many unanswered questions, curiosity about the process, what may have happened to their loved ones and fear about what will happen to everyone else around them."

Read more: Bowel cancer survivor credits Deborah James with helping her cope with diagnosis

How to prepare children for the loss of a loved one. (Getty Images)
How to prepare children for the loss of a loved one. (Getty Images)

As a result, Solanki says it is vital that we are able to speak to children about the subject, no matter how difficult.

Pick your moment

Choose the time and environment carefully when you speak to them, says Solanki. "Make sure it feels safe and unhurried."

Macmillan Cancer Support points out that it is often easier for children to hear information in small chunks, rather than all at once. "You may need to repeat simple messages several times," the site adds.

Use clear language

Macmillan Cancer Support recommends using simple words such as ‘dying’ when you tell young children about a forthcoming death.

"Try not to use phrases that may confuse them," the site explains. "For example, saying that you will be ‘going away’ or ‘going to a better place’ may make a child feel that you are abandoning them."

Equally Solanki recommends avoiding terminology such as 'they will go to sleep'. "This kind of language has led children becoming terrified of sleeping in case they don't wake up," she explains.

Watch: Deborah James talks about saying goodbye to loved ones amid cancer treatment

Be open and honest

Solanki recommends you answer the child's questions to the best of your ability. "Be guided by their curiosity and anxieties," she says.

Keep the conversation going

Ensure that children know it's not a one and done conversation. "They need to know they can come back at any time and ask anything big or small," Solanki explains.

Show children how to express themselves

They may struggle to find the right words so encourage them to show how they're feeling through writing, play and art.

Normalise their feelings

Children may feel a whole host of emotions including anger, fear, introversion, extroversion, so it is important to let them know that however they are feeling is ok.

"Let them know whatever they feel is normal and natural and that it won't feel this way forever, that their feelings, thoughts, and questions will change over time," Solanki explains.

"It's important to ensure they know there is a constant place they can come back to, a safe harbour through what is likely to be a period of change and upheaval.

"Engendering a feeling of emotional safety should be at the core of these conversations," she adds.

Read more: Most parents worried about kids' mental health: How to spot if your child's struggling

Parents may want to protect children but it is important to prepare them for loss. (Getty Images)
Parents may want to protect children but it is important to prepare them for loss. (Getty Images)

Let them find their own approach

Solanski says it is important to bear in mind that children will approach things very differently to adults and we have to be careful not to project our experiences onto them.

Seek help

Organisations such as Winston’s Wish or Marie Curie provide information about supporting children and teenagers when an adult is dying.

You can also look for local bereavement services near you at the Childhood Bereavement Network.

Macmillan Cancer Support has a booklet End of life: a guide which has more information, which parents and carers might find helpful.

Childhood Bereavement UK produces information about supporting children when a parent is not expected to live.

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