A week ago in the UK, no one could have predicted the historic events to come. On September 6th 2022, in Balmoral Castle, we witnessed the third female British Prime Minister in history being sworn in by a beaming Queen Elizabeth II. Less than 48 hours later however, the cameras were focused back at the gates of Balmoral for very different reasons indeed. We were warned by the media to expect the worst and at 6.30pm on 8th September, the announcement came that the Queen had peacefully died at the age of 96.
Whatever your feelings towards the monarchy, most people will respect and recognise the dedication to duty of Her Majesty over the previous seven decades of loyal service. A life of privilege indeed, but also a constant in all of our lives and for many of us the only monarch we have ever known in our lifetime. It was only a matter of weeks ago that bunting adorned streets all over the UK as the nation celebrated the 70th Platinum Jubilee. There is no doubt that for many, when the announcement came, no matter how much it may have been expected, there still came a feeling of unsettled emotions, of shock, of loss and of grief.
As the hours and days have passed, it’s become clear that there is no single ‘right’ reaction to the loss of our Queen. For some, it’s noted as an important moment in history, for others it’s unleashed emotions which run deeper - a sense of displacement perhaps, or apprehension about how life will look and feel different from now on. For some it feels raw, like the loss of a relative and for others it doesn’t feel real yet - there are simply questions and numbness.
As adults, we know that each of these reactions are valid. And most people try hard to be respectful of others and their feelings. For children however, this could be their very first experience of loss, the very first time they’ve been jolted by the reality that lives do come to an end, that nothing is permanent or indefinite. And of course, this particular moment also coincides with the start of a new school year, already a time of transition and anxiety for many children without this adding to the big feelings already present.
Undoubtedly, this realisation of death will stir up feelings of panic, of sadness, of confusion. We know that the Queen wasn’t known personally to them, but with the recent Jubilee events this summer, it is very likely many under 5s will feel a certain attachment to her. So as educators, what can we do to support them in this space?
The sad reality is that although this could be the children’s very first experience of loss, it most certainly will not be their last. As humans we spend our lives finding and building strong relationships, but we also spend part of our lives grieving the loss of those very same bonds. Bereavement is a sad fact of life and it’s our job to prepare children with the tools to cope in these difficult moments.
Talking to children about death is something most adults fear. It’s uncomfortable because the subject itself is uncomfortable. There is no certainty except that the person is gone forever.
Ultimately, it’s scary for everyone. But for a child, it can trigger worries about losing more people, particularly close family. However, if we don’t talk to children about death and only postpone the conversations, this ultimately won’t help. Instead, honesty and reassurance is key.
Here are some suggestions to help you navigate these conversations if and when they arise:
As a first step, do speak with parents and carers of the children you support. Find out their views and respect how much or how little they feel their child can cope with. Every child is different and every child will be more or less able to absorb and process conversations.
Once boundaries are established, consider what you already know of the children in your setting. Don’t force topics but allow them to evolve naturally - validate comments children make about the person they have lost. Acknowledge that person was important.
Use direct language such as ‘died’ or ‘death’ rather than ‘went to sleep’ or ‘passed away’. Explain death means that our bodies stop working. They will not come back to life. It’s important children don’t come to associate time to sleep with a fear of loss.
Encourage questions. We know ‘curious minds see more’ but don’t focus on trying to ‘fix’ everything with your answers. It’s ok to say we don’t really know. Spiritual conversations can be comforting for some children, for others, these may come later (or not at all).
It may be helpful to use books to support your conversations. Titles that might help include; ’Badger’s parting gifts’ (Susan Varley), ’Lifetimes’ (Bryan Mellonie), ‘I Miss You’ (Pat Thomas) and ‘The invisible string’ (Patrice Karst).
Children can take great comfort in believing the person they love is somewhere else, or reunited with someone they love. We can support them in this and encourage them to show their love through pictures, letters or art.
Having a memory book, planting something or making a memory box are all special ways of honouring the memory of the person who died. Speak about them often. Share the good memories and enjoy them.
Share your grief freely too. It’s healthy for children to see adults experience emotions. It teaches them that we shouldn’t have to hide from ourselves.
Above all, we want to provide the children with a safe space to let their ‘big feelings’ be free. The Queen herself once said that, ‘Grief is the price we pay for love.’ When someone dies, that love is still there, we just need to help the children (and ourselves) to find a new place for it to go.
At tiney, let’s remember the strong community we are part of in these coming days and weeks. Let’s reflect on the wonderful Jubilee celebrations we had in her honour and remind the children we support of the incredible life she led. Reach out and be there for each other, but be kind to yourselves too.
There is a beginning and an ending for everything...in between is living