British Columbia

Presence, honesty vital in talking to children about death

Psychologist Jillian Roberts says simple, truthful explanations can help children who are directly or indirectly affected by the deaths of two young Oak Bay sisters last week.

Children may experience confusion, fear, anger, or show no emotion

A woman and children attending the beachside vigil in memory of sisters Chloe and Aubrey Berry on Dec. 30, 2017. (CBC)

As Oak Bay residents mourned the deaths of two young sisters last week, many worried about how the girls' classmates, friends and other children in the community would cope with the tragedy.

The deaths of six-year-old Chloe Berry and four-year-old Aubrey Berry on Christmas Day are being investigated as a double homicide.

Child psychologist Dr. Jillian Roberts, who is an author of books and courses on helping children cope with death and tragedy, said talking to a classmate of the girls is different from discussing it with a child with no direct connection to them.

 "A child that has a more direct link will need way more support than a child who just heard about it on the news," Roberts told All Points West host Jason D'Souza.

In either situation, though, she said it is important for parents to be fully present  for a conversation with the child and not distracted by phones or other activities, 

Roberts, who also teaches at the University of Victoria, urges parents to simply explain that a child has died.

Dr. Jillian Roberts says it is important for parents to be honest with children when talking about a death but avoid additional information or speculation. (Kelsey Goodwin)

"All counsellors would say something along the line of being truthful and not making it easier on yourself in the moment by saying something like 'they've gone away,' or 'they've gone to sleep' or something like that — will be confusing to the child," she said.

Roberts said it's important to avoid speculating about details and what might have happened.

Reactions from anguish to anger 

For children who have lost a friend or acquaintance, Roberts said, "parents should focus on what the child can do to honour the memory of the child that was lost. So to help direct the child toward the path of healing, and as quickly as possible."

For a child who has no direct connection but has heard about the death, she said it's appropriate for parents to start a conversation about it. "By doing that you're positioning yourself as the go-to position in your child's life. They'll come to you when they're hearing anything confusing on the news."

Normal reactions can range from anguish to anger. 

Some children become distressed and crying and need assurance that they and their family are safe, Roberts said.

Friends and strangers laid flowers, toys and cards outside the Oak Bay apartment where the Berry sisters lived. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

Other children don't seem to want to discuss it at first, she said."But over the next weeks they might come back with more questions."

Children who have recently lost a person or pet who was close to them might experience that grief again even if they didn't know the children who died. 

It is also normal and expected for some children to become angry in response to a death.

"We want to be very gentle and not disciplinarian with a child if they're acting out especially following a tragedy like this," Roberts said.