Explaining death to a child with additional needs

Katrina Dorrian by Katrina Dorrian Additional Needs

Katrina Dorrian

Katrina Dorrian

Hi! I'm Katrina, I have 8yr old triplets; one who has spina bifida, hydrocephalus and epilepsy. I also have MS, so we've a busy (but happy) house!

Explaining death to a child with additional needs

*Trigger Warning: Discusses death*

At 100 years of age, my Granda sadly died recently surrounded by his children in his own bed free of pain or distress. It was what I would consider a “good death” as both his granddaughter and a trained nurse.

It was such an achievement to live to 100 years old and he was an extraordinary man who lived a very interesting life.

I’m Mum to 8-year-old triplets who lost my paternal Nanny in 2019 when they were a little bit too young to understand the “finality” of it all.

When their Great Granda died, it was definitely more deeply understood by Ben and Chloe, although Jacob struggled with the concept due to his brain injury (acquired hydrocephalus secondary to spina bifida).

I reached out to a child bereavement charity who offered excellent support and suggested books and other resources to help explain what it all meant.

Sadly, Jacob didn’t really seem keen to engage with any of it and seemed quite disassociated with what was going on. They were given the choice if they wished to go to his funeral or not, and they chose to go.

On the day of the funeral, I explained to Jacob especially that there would be a coffin there. He inevitably asked what that was and meant, which entailed further discussion.

It is really so hard to know how much detail is appropriate for a child of 8 years old, never mind his added learning disability. He seemed to have a degree of understanding but became quiet when we entered the church.

He held my hand through the whole service and was just so quiet.

Anyone who knows him would laugh at that since Jacob is very rarely quiet!

When the coffin was taken out and we all went into the next room for refreshments, Jacob burst into hysterical tears.

It went on for what seemed like a very long time and my heart really ached for him. I think seeing the coffin, and understanding the significance of that, finally hit him.

All I could do was sit with him quietly and be there in case he wanted a hug or to talk.

He eventually calmed down and became his usual bubbly self, but I think sometimes there is a temptation to hide the reality of death from children, especially those with additional needs.

While it is every parent’s choice how much to tell their little ones when big things happen, I try to always be upfront and honest with my three.

I obviously censor things to a degree and have to alter how I tell Jacob at times, or repeat the message until it sinks in for him, but I’ll keep doing that because I truly feel that it is teaching them all about the full range of human emotions.

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