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How To Explain Death & Grief To Your Child

Helping your child to cope with the loss of a loved one is never something you wish to experience, but unfortunately, for many, it's a harsh reality.

German-born Elke Barber met her husband Martin when she moved to the UK in 1995. Married in 2004, they went on to have two beautiful children, Alex and Olivia. When their eldest child, Alex was just three years old, Martin died suddenly at the age of 34 while on a camping trip with his son.

The plan was for Martin and Alex to enjoy a boys weekend together at a caravan park in the Lake District, while Elke and their 11-month-old daughter Olivia were at home in Edinburgh. Sadly, he suffered a heart attack in the caravan and passed away en route to the hospital.

Elke spent the four-hour car journey to the Lake District thinking of how to explain things to Alex, wondering what he might be thinking.

She recalls, that on arrival, Alex didn't seem too worried. He was just waiting for his dad to come back. "Martin was a police officer, so Alex was used to him having to leave suddenly", she explains.

When Alex saw his mom, he said "Oi, what are you doing here? No girls allowed!", then asked, "Is Daddy coming back in a minute?

"I knelt down beside him and put his head against my chest and said, 'can you feel that?'. He said, 'I can hear a funny bump, bump, bump'. I explained to him that what he could hear was a heart and that everybody has a heart, but when it stops beating, that person can't use their body anymore, or walk anymore, or talk anymore. I explained that daddy's heart had stopped beating and that he could never come back".

Of course, that didn't fully sink in for Alex, and he had million of questions. Elke recalls not being able to find any helpful resources to explain what had happened to Martin. She says, "I remember going into shops, asking if they had any books to explain death to a three-year-old, and they looked at me as if I had two heads!". She took all of Alex's questions and went on to write two books aimed at helping parents to explain death, bereavement, and grief to their children.

Elke went on to say how she feels the public perception is that very young child aren't affected by death, but they certainly are. She feels it is important to include them in what's going on, which is why both children attended the crematorium service.

Alex continued to ask about his dad, and about death, asking, "how many sleeps until Christmas?’ and "how many more sleeps until I have to die, Mummy?".

Elke explained, "It really doesn't matter how often you explain that daddy will never come back, they still wish for it at every birthday. It's when they get a little older, age six, seven, eight, that the realisation sets in, and then they are devastated all over again. It's heartbreaking."

Elke feels that children need plenty of guidance from the adults around them to deal with grief. Keeping an open conversation, answering questions and keeping your loved one's memory alive, in whatever way suits you and your family.

When a loved one passes away, children deal with their grief in all sorts of different ways. Raising awareness of how children grieve is the aim of National Bereaved Children’s Week, which takes place this week. At the conference which takes place Friday 18th, Ireland’s first set of national standards for the care of bereaved children will be launched.

Click here for some downloadable A4 fact sheets from the ICBN, offering some guidance and information on supporting children before a death, supporting a child at the time of death, sibling loss and much more. "

"Is Daddy Coming Back in a Minute?" and"What Happened to Daddy’s Body?" by Elke and Alex Barber are now published by Jessica Kingsley, £10.99, available from jkp.com. Visit Elke's Facebook page here.

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About the Author

Editor of eumom.ie, Mairéad Cahalan is a creator of content, a lover of music, red wine and coffee, and a part-time wedding singer! Find her on Twitter, Instagram, Soundcloud and LinkedIn.

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