The Ultimate (not really!) Guide to helping a small boy grieve.

The Ultimate (not really!) Guide to helping a small boy grieve.

Those of you who follow me, as opposed to the blog, on Instagram (@peta.obrien in case you’re wondering!) will know that Tracy Anderson, who’s workout programme I have followed for years, lost the father of her 8-year old daughter to cancer recently. For obvious reasons this news sent me down a bit of an emotional rabbit hole, and I found myself flashing back to a lot of the trauma and difficulty surrounding Mark’s death and the effect it had on Ethan.

I am the sort of person who wants good and productive results to come out of everything bad that happens. If something shitty is going to happen to you, then you might as well learn some lessons from it and find some positive within all of the sadness. So I thought I would have a think about what helped me, and Ethan in the time around Mark’s illness and death. Some are practical, some are emotional, some are purely tied to our particular circumstances, and not all of them will/would have been helpful to everyone.

A lot of my ability to cope with supporting a pre-schooler in losing his father has come from my 15 years as a youth worker. I gained indispensable knowledge of child development and had the huge benefit of attending training in helping children and young people deal with bereavement as part of my job 2 years before Mark’s death. (something which I’ve always found remarkably lucky).

I’ve also added some things at the end that, in hindsight, I think I did wrong. But in the spirit of using my experience to help others, here they are. If you have any to add, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Using age appropriate and clear vocabulary

One of the clearest lessons from the bereavement course I went on was on the importance of using the right terminology when discussing death. I heard countless stories of children being told that Mum, or Grandad, or the family dog, have “gone to sleep” or “gone away”, and growing up with huge anxieties surrounding going to bed themselves in case they never wake up, or another loved one going on holiday in case they never return. Children need clear and age appropriate vocabulary in order to talk about and try to understand what is happening. And they will only get it from us. However, as adults, we tend to shy away from using such bald words as “died” or phrases such as “never coming back”. Partly this is because we’re all scared to death (excuse me) of death, and don’t want to talk about it ourselves, but partly it’s because we think terms such as these as too adult for children to deal with. So we try to sugar-coat it. However, take it from me, no airy-fairy phrases are going to lighten the load of a child who has just heard that someone they love is dead. They will just be confused. I told Ethan that Mark had died the following morning. It was terrible. But I used phrases and words that I hoped would begin to give him a framework within which he could begin to understand what had happened. I used the word “cancer” and biological language where appropriate. And then, as he got older, we filled in the story.

There are many ways you can address this and it very much depends on the age of the child.  But, in our case this is what I said:

 “Daddy was very sick, and his body was very broken. The doctors tried really hard to fix him, but they couldn’t and so he died. He won’t ever be able to come back and see us. He loved us very much and he didn’t want to die, but his body was too broken and it couldn’t carry on working anymore.”

It helped that we had been open and clear (again in an age appropriate way) that Mark was sick from the point of diagnosis. Ethan had seen his Daddy deteriorate and been to visit him in hospital. So we had already set the foundation for his understanding and it all didn’t come out of the blue.

Having the patience to keep answering the same questions

Oh my word. The questions. I think about 10 times a day for the first 6 months I had to answer the question “Is Daddy coming back?” or “When is Daddy coming home?”. Over and over again. Other members of the family found this very upsetting, and I totally understand, I did too. But it didn’t mean that he had forgotten about the situation, he was just at an age where the concept of permanence didn’t make sense. It was heart-breaking to have to calmly repeat myself over and over again, frequently whilst crying, but it was so important for him to hear the same thing so that it made an impression in his mind, and so that he felt secure in what had happened.


We based much of our conversation on a fabulous book by Elke Barber “Is Daddy Coming Back in a Minute?” which she wrote to help her 3 year old son process his father’s sudden death. It(and it’s companion “What Happened to Daddy’s Body)” are the most wonderful fabulous books. My mum found them for us and Ethan liked me to read them to him constantly. In it she explains in clear language and friendly pictures, what happened and what this means. When Ethan started at nursery, and then school, and his childminders we bought copies for each setting so that he always had access to them, whenever he wanted to revisit the subject, and so that staff members were clear about the kind of language we were using, and had something to help them deal with a difficult topic. He still occasionally asks to read them now, I think they are a sort of comfort blanket for him.

Having a strong network of support

Understandably, Ethan began to become concerned about other members of the family, particularly me, and whether I was sticking around. Again, sugar-coating things for children just leads to problems later on, and I have never believed in lying to my son (over and above “no, there is no ice-cream in the freezer”!). So I didn’t want to tell him that I wasn’t ever going to die. Instead I talked about how long people usually live for, and how far away 100 (!) was for me. I explained that I probably wouldn’t die for a very long time, but then we  took a giant piece of paper and wrote down all the people who loved Ethan on it. It was a very full sheet! I explained who would look after him if I died, and who would look after him if they died, etc. This might seem particularly morbid (And I’m not sure how my friend’s Ali and Bekka felt about me discussing their deaths!) but it helped him feel comforted that he would always be safe and looked after, and it reminded him (and me) of the wonderful and large network of support and love that we had around us at all times. We still have the piece of paper and we call it (the not so concise name of) “Ethan’s list of all the people who love him”. It will always make me smile.

Explaining to him what was going on when people showed hard emotions

People cry when someone they love has died. This seems obvious, but often we try and shield children from this inevitable and natural occurrence “in case we upset them”. They are already upset. But children thrive on certainty, and seeing a trusted adult hide in the corner or come out of the bathroom sniffing whilst saying “Nothing’s wrong, I’m fine” makes them feel insecure and frightened. If we don’t model how to deal with tough emotions for our children then they will never learn to do it themselves. There is nothing wrong with crying in front of your child. The important thing is to explain to them what is going on, why you are crying, and that it is perfectly natural to be sad. It’s also important to explain that you can be happy too. Even when you have gone through a bereavement, there are things which will make you laugh and smile (especially when you’re living with a small and very amusing boy!), and it’s important to convey to them that being happy doesn’t mean that you have forgotten your loved one, or that their death no longer makes you sad. All emotions are ok. Communication is the key.

Support at school

As I mentioned, when Ethan started nursery I spent a long time talking with the staff about the language we had used, and how we were dealing with Ethan’s emotions. I was very clear (possibly to the point of lecturing!) that we wanted them to use the same language. Generally this was dealt with very well, apart from the one member of staff during a holiday club who responded to Ethan’s “My Daddy is very poorly” (something he used to say more often than “My Daddy is dead”) with “Oh well, I’m sure he’ll get better soon”….I think this  well-meaning sentiment set us back about 6 months.

In the end, as Ethan grew, and aspects of his anxiety began to cause us concern and effect his academic performance, we made the decision to move him to a smaller school with better pastoral facilities. Teachers are wonderful, but many schools are strapped for cash and time, and his state of mind was getting missed. He’s now in a fabulous place with teachers who notice when he’s having an anxious day, and have the time to work with his need for security and routine.

Talking about Mark

I’ve talked in previous blog posts about how we, as a family, incorporate Mark into our lives. We talk about him frequently, and there are pictures of him around the house. Ethan and I often spend time watching videos or looking at photos, and Mark’s family are wonderful at relating memories of him or pointing out to Ethan the ways they are similar. This is so important to me. Ethan is so lucky to have a second father figure in Nick. But I always want to make sure that he feels as close to Mark as possible, and can tie his physical features, skills and interests back to his father when appropriate. We also, however, are careful to remember, not fetishize. Mark was not a saint, and we don’t want a shrine. He was a human being. I don’t want to hold him up as some paragon of virtue that Ethan can never live up to. We are realistic about faults as well as merits. We don’t move on, we find a different way to weave our loved on into our lives and walk forward.

Taking his emotions and questions seriously

Small children are often ridiculous, but sometimes thoughtful. Ethan would occasionally talk about how he thought maybe Mark was in a cloud looking down on him, or how he was up in the stars. He would ask me detailed questions about how Mark had died, and sometimes he would say he was sad but didn’t really know why. Small people’s emotions aren’t small, and they should be taken seriously. At the same time, it was really helpful for me to know about “Puddle jumping”: Children don’t deal with emotions the same way that adults do – they are unlikely to stay in one emotion for very long, however deeply they feel them. There were occasions when Ethan would be very sad about Mark dying, crying even, and then he would wipe his eyes, ask me for a biscuit and run off laughing at something. I think that some of the family found this difficult, as if he wasn’t really bothered by the whole situation. But this is just the way his brain worked at that age. It was important to me to remember that it didn’t mean he had forgotten, and that it was totally normal.

Finding a consistent babysitter

Carole was my lifeline. She meant that I could go back to work (running my youth project meant 2 evening sessions a week) knowing that Ethan was safe and secure with someone who cared about him, rather than cobbling together a rota of loving friends and some family. This also meant that I wasn’t “using up tokens/favours” for work related babysitting and so could still ask them to cover for me to do other things. It It might seem self-indulgent or incomprehensible when you’ve lost a partner to want to leave your child for a few hours, it did to me at first. But it was key for me to feel as if I had a life outside of caring for him, even if it was just going to a church hall and caring for some teenagers! It was also really nice to come home after a few hours at work, and have an adult to talk to! Carole was privy to many a debrief and probably couldn’t wait to get back to her own, quiet home after a while. She also took on Ethan-sitting duties (he started to object to me calling it being “babysat”!) when I dipped my toe back into dating. So crucial was she to the beginnings of my relationship with Nick that she even came along to the wedding!

Getting in touch with the experts

 I was desperate when I contacted Daisy’s Dream. A few week’s previously I’d phoned the Health Visiting team in a panic, hoping that they would be able to help me with Ethan’s sleep – to work out what I was (without any sense of perspective) doing wrong. But after a 2 hour run of, increasingly intrusive, questions, she told me I had done all the right things and she really couldn’t think of any other advice to give me – it was probably a phase and he’d grow out of it. I cried tears of frustration and exhaustion when she left.

I called the Reading-based charity Daisy’s Dream as a last resort. They sent a wonderful lady out to see us. She watched Ethan play and talked to us both. Calmly and authoritatively, she told me that he wasn’t traumatised, that he was obviously a very well-adjusted child, and that I had done really well. To be honest, this was such a weight off my shoulders. I thought I was doing the right things, but to have someone experienced tell you this was invaluable. But then she helped me devise a plan that would be kind to Ethan and I, but also result in both of us getting a lot more sleep. There aren’t as many groups devoted to helping bereaved children as there are adults, but the help is out there. Winston’s Wish are another great, child-specific, resource.

Ok, now a few of the things (amongst countless others) that I should have done, but didn’t.

Let him in my bed

I spent a HUGE amount of time panicking about making a rod for my own back with regard to sleep. Ethan was never a good sleeper, but it got steadily worse after Mark died, somewhat unsurprisingly. He obviously felt some kind of insecurity and anxiety surrounding being alone in his bedroom. It got to the point where it was taking 2 hours of screaming to get him to go to bed, and then he would wake up every 45 minutes. I was a broken woman, and I’m pretty sure there were mornings when I wasn’t safe to drive to work I was so tired. I had decided to “stand firm” and not just let him come into bed with me when he woke up. Partly this was because he is, and always has been, a wriggle monster, and this would mean a not-very-restful night for me, partly because I still wanted to carve out a sliver of adult space in my life, and partly because I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to be alone forever, and, to be honest, that would be a difficult sell to whoever did come along. In hindsight, I should have been kinder to myself, and to him, and not panicked so much about it being a habit he would never break. After speaking to the wonderful woman from Daisy’s Dream, I felt more confident about it being a stage. We also decided that sometimes life is about survival, and I couldn’t survive with the current situation. Having him in my bed from 2am so I got enough sleep to function wasn’t the end of the world. And we were right – granted, he didn’t sleep through the night consistently until he was about 5, but he didn’t spend all of the intervening years in with me.

Stuck it out with counselling

The staff at the hospice where Mark spent his last few days were beyond lovely. They helped with arrangements and belongings, and they set me up with a counsellor once all the initial madness had settled down. There were 2 problems, however. One was timing. Looking back, it was far too early for me to even think about processing any of the shit that was going through my head, or the trauma I had faced. I was still having flashbacks to Marks final days, I was sleep-deprived as previously mentioned, and there were still so many practical things to deal with that I had no head space.

The second problem was me. I need to feel productive in every setting. I’ve always been rubbish at relaxing, and I needed to feel like this hour away from my son (something that was hard won, tough to organise, and didn’t happen very often) was a productive use of my time. This meant we had to actually talk about things and come to conclusions. Whereas, at that moment, what usually happened was I cried for a while, got cross about crying, and then tried to stop myself crying. Rationally, I know that this was a perfectly ok way to use the time and space, but I felt like I as wasting her time and mine, and that of whoever was looking after Ethan that week. In addition, I had, by this point, spent 10 years as a youth worker, specialising in mentoring young people through issues in their own lives. I wasn’t a trained counsellor, but I knew a LOT of the strategies and techniques needed to help people work through their emotions. The counsellor was a lovely woman, but she did a lot of reflecting back to me what I was saying or the stock “so how did you feel about that?” It sounds really egotistical, but I wanted someone to help me who knew more than I did. And it didn’t feel like the case here. A few years later, after realising that I really hadn’t dealt with a lot of the issues resulting from Mark’s death, I did find a wonderful counsellor, who did know a LOT more than me, and did have the confidence to call me on my bullsh*t. It was a revelation. And I dearly wish that I had come back to the process earlier, either by finding a different counsellor who was a better fit, or by waiting a few months and trying again. Either option would have resulted in much less heartache.

I think that is perhaps my greatest takeaway from all this: Finding help is important, but making sure it is the right help for you is invaluable. Just like boyfriends, you don’t have to settle for the first counsellor who comes along!

You will always do something wrong. There is no way of getting through being a parent without messing up your child in some way. This is the case even if both parents stay alive and together through the whole 20-odd years of their children’s lives. You can’t predict and mitigate every possible issue. And when a parent dies, the parent left behind has even more to deal with alongside having even less capacity. There will always be something you miss – and that’s ok. Love your child, love yourself, and know that everyone who cares about you is rooting for you. Including me. x

One thought on “The Ultimate (not really!) Guide to helping a small boy grieve.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s