Speaking to Children About Death
February 3, 2020
Death is an inevitable part of life, but speaking about this topic can be challenging, especially when talking to children. Here are some tips on how to speak to your child about death in a comforting, honest, and supportive way.
Use Clear Language
When breaking the news to a child that someone has died, be sure to use clear, simple language. Often as adults, we tend to use the euphemisms “passed away” or “lost,” but these words can confuse or even mislead children. They may think their relative or friend has simply gone away and will be returning at some point. As uncomfortable as it may be, it is important to use the words “dead” or “died” to help them understand precisely what has happened. If you’re unsure of what to say, there are a number of children’s books that can help explain death and dying to children. Reading these books together can prepare children for the inevitable even before they experience their first loss.
Take It Slowly
Coming to grips with definitions of death and dying can be overwhelming for a child. Giving small bits of information at a time will allow plenty of time for them to process what they have learned. Instead of sharing a great deal of information at once, allow your child’s questions to guide the conversation. By directly addressing topics that they are curious or confused about, you will be better able to help them navigate this difficult time. And of course, don’t hesitate to be comfortable saying “I don’t know” when they ask life’s unanswerable questions.
Be Prepared for Grief’s Inumerable Expressions
Every person experiences grief in his or her own way. For children, they may be silent or isolate themselves at this time. They might be visibly distressed and filled with intense emotions, or they may seem unaffected by the loss. There is no “right” way to grieve. Expressing your own emotions can be beneficial in guiding a child through grief, especially when we explain the feelings that underlie those emotions. Being open and honest about our feelings of grief can help children feel comfortable with their own emotions. Rather than hiding your emotions, sharing moments of grief by crying together is healing and healthy for both adults and children.
Prepare Your Child for the Funeral Service
Many parents are unsure whether to bring their children to funeral or memorial services. Giving children a choice could be an excellent solution. First, tell your child what to expect at the funeral. Explain what they will see, who will be there, and how people may be feeling. Again, use clear language to describe key elements of the service, such as the body, casket, burial, or cremation. Once children know what to expect, they can decide for themselves if they think they are ready for it. If they choose not to participate, be understanding; don’t make them feel pressure. However, if they do choose to participate, it can be meaningful for everyone to include them in certain rituals such as reading a poem or collecting photos to display. Allowing children to decide how they would like to take part can give them a sense of agency during this complicated time.
Keep the Memories Alive
Parents often feel hesitant to talk about the person who has died with their children, fearing that it will cause them pain. Yet research suggests that sharing stories and memories actually assists in healing and closure. In the days and weeks following the death of a loved one, encourage your child to draw pictures or write stories about the person who has died. Be sure to have ongoing conversations with your child to check in with them. And remember, grief is a long process that looks different for each of us. For children who might need extra support along their grief journey, your child's school, physician, or religious community may be able to offer counseling or support groups. With time and guidance, children will learn to move through their grief in a healthy, empowering way.