Talking to children about death
Approach a child’s emotions with validation and guidance.
Be open and honest when they ask questions.
Be reassuring and supportive of their concerns by not denying or minimizing their fears.
Ask children to discuss their thoughts and tell you what they understand, and fill in their gaps or correct misunderstandings.
The death of someone in or close to your family affects everyone, including the youngest members of your household. Like adults, each child feels and processes grief in their own unique way, and supporting them through it, especially while you’re also grieving, is no easy task.
While it is a challenge, the entire family benefits from helping children cope with their emotions. It can help prevent future behavioral issues and emotional struggles that often plague kids whose feelings are left unacknowledged. Talking through their questions and their understanding of death can help everyone involved process the complicated feelings of missing a loved one.
Remember not to rush conversations or skip to the end and tell them the lessons they should be taking away. Children react in complex ways, and there is no one method that provides closure to every kid. You should even expect differences between siblings. Be prepared to meet each child where they are in the moment.
Also, be aware that very young children may not understand what is happening at all, and their grief will often be characterized by confusion and fretful behaviors rather than overt sadness. Depending on how much they are aware of, the best course of action may be to simply comfort them physically and keep their routines the same, if they are still babies, and to acknowledge that you are all sad and to reinforce that they are loved and safe, for toddlers.
The advice below primarily pertains to children of preschool age and above, and even within that group, ideas about and understandings of death continue to develop for several years. It is important to listen carefully to children and find their level of comprehension, rather than forcing new ideas on them too soon.
Your priority as a parent of (or adult in the life of) a grieving child should be to approach their emotions with validation and guidance. Children will pick up on the fact that you are also grieving, and vulnerability and honesty go a long way in learning to cope together.
In the first moments
The news of the departure of a loved one is shocking and earth-shattering, even if we’ve been preparing for it for a long time. For children, this moment is complicated by how old they are and how much they understand what death means.
As you deliver the news, they may ask questions, express concern, and demonstrate confusion. They might even be speaking aloud some of the emotions you are silently struggling with.
In these early moments, ask children to discuss their thoughts and tell you what they understand about death. Once you know where they are emotionally, you’ll be able to help them to learn more and deepen their understanding.
If talking about it seems to be overly distressing to them, it’s best to press pause on the conversation and offer emotional support. Children will most likely need to have multiple talks throughout the grieving process, so this first discussion does not have to be the end-all-be-all.
You are their example
Children are naturally observant and empathetic, and they learn by watching the adults in their life, especially in difficult moments. They’ll be in tune with your emotions and looking to you for guidance.
Stay open and honest as they ask questions. Reassure and support them if they express concern about your mortality or that of other adults they love, but don’t deny or minimize their fears. When they see that you are comfortable showing your emotions, your children will understand that it’s OK to do so themselves, and you will continue to heal together.
You are at your best for your children and everyone else around you when you’re also coping in a healthy manner.
It can be overwhelming to think about being a role model while you’re processing your own grief, and there are ways to handle your feelings together—including assistance from therapists and other close family members.
Some simple strategies
As you dig deeper into the meaning of death with your kid, expect the unexpected. Among other differences, children are usually not concerned with pleasantries or euphemisms. It might be jarring to have conversations this frank with a child, but it’s essential to making sure they understand and do not internalize added fear. Your aim should be to be gentle, but clear.
You also want to check back in with them about what they understand. Ask questions like, “Tell me what you think happened.” or “What do you think will happen during the funeral?” When children explain their thoughts to you, you have the chance to fill in gaps or correct misunderstandings.
If you find your child is reluctant to talk about their feelings, make sure they know you’re there to talk to them and won’t be upset by the conversation. Often, their hesitation is because they don’t want to make you sad. They may even feel a sense of guilt around the death. You can encourage other ways of processing their emotions, such as creative outputs like writing, drawing, dance, or music.
Assure them throughout that what has happened is not a result of anything they have or haven’t done, and that their loved one lives on in their memories.
Prepare for the funeral or memorial
As adults, we understand that a funeral or memorial is a time to find closure and say final goodbyes, but the nature of such ceremonies is not always as clear to younger children. It’s nevertheless important for them to attend, if possible. Like us, they will find comfort in being surrounded by others in their grief.
Before attending, explain what will happen and what will be expected of them. This is another area in which clear and uncomplicated language is important. You might say something like, “Your aunts and uncles will all be there and we’re going to say goodbye to Grandma by making speeches and singing songs.” It’s important to prepare them for high emotions—tears, hugging, laughter, and serious moments.
Once they demonstrate that they understand what it will be like, give them the choice to attend or not. If the situation allows it, you might also want to provide them with options to participate, so they can feel like they have an opportunity to honor the person they loved.
You should be prepared in case they become overwhelmed, such as providing an option ahead of time that allows for them to quietly distract themselves if it is too much for them to take in.
Take care of yourself
Throughout the grieving process, it is essential to check in with yourself and not get caught up in taking care of everyone around you all the time. You are at your best for your children and everyone else around you when you’re also coping in a healthy manner.
If you are overwhelmed by your grief, bring the ones you love closer to you by sharing your emotions. This includes your children, who will see you dealing with your strong and difficult feelings and emulate that behavior themselves.
Ultimately, when it comes to supporting children in their grief, you’ll want to focus on practicing patience and understanding. Our emotions during difficult times like these are heavy, and everyone around us is affected in different ways. Children are no exception: They, like all of us, are seeking reassurance that they will find ways to honor their loved one while going on to live happy and fulfilled lives ●
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