How to talk to your child about death

July 8, 2013 at 3:15pm

Whether it’s their first pet, a close family member, or a news bulletin they happen to overhear, talking to your child about death is an inevitable part of their growing up. While the circumstances surrounding your conversation, and your child are very different from one another, there are still a few guidelines to keep in mind during this difficult conversation.

It may be useful for you to discuss death with your child before a death in your family, allowing you to have a conversation that’s less emotional and likely to be less frightening for your child as well.

If there is a funeral, explain to your child what that will entail, and then ask them if they want to go or not. If they say yes, spend a little longer preparing them for what will happen, and answer any questions that they may have. If they say no, do not make them feel that attending is mandatory, or at all necessary. In place of the funeral, try to do an activity with them to memorialize and mourn the deceased - whether it is talking about them and sharing memories, or drawing a picture or lighting a candle.<

Don’t be afraid of showing your child emotion - explain to them that sometimes grown ups have to cry too, and tell them why you’re sad - “I’m going to miss Aunt Sarah very much, so I’m sad.”

    There is no standardized grieving process for children. Some may feel guilt, others may continue to act normally, punctuated by small chunks of sadness, others may regress to more childlike behavior. This is why it’s important for you to notify teachers and your child’s school that your child may be grieving.

Young children, particularly, may struggle with the concept of death, and may ask you about it several times. Here are some more concepts that your child may struggle with.

  • It is likely that your child is already familiar with the concept of death, even before you talk to them about it - they see dead bugs, read about it in fairy tales, incorporate into their play. However, it is likely that they don’t understand it fully.

  • The concept of death may not make very much sense to them, so it’s best to explain it in terms they understand, such as the absence of familiar functions or activity. “They can’t breathe, or eat, or talk anymore.”

  • Children around this age may not understand that death is permanent, inevitable, and that it happens to everyone. Be expecting to answer questions about these things repeatedly.

  • Don’t use euphemisms. Saying things like “she’s on a very long trip,” or “he’s asleep,” or “he’s gone away for a long time,” will only confuse the child, and may make them fearful of traveling, sleeping, or being away from you for a long time.

  • If someone died of an illness, be sure to clarify that when people get sick, they almost always get better.

  • Do not link dying to old age - this will only confuse the child if they know someone younger that passes away later on.

  • Children don’t necessarily understand cause and effect well, so they may feel guilty or responsible for the death - for example, if they had “bad thoughts” about the person. Be sure to emphasize to your child that the death was not their fault.

  • While faith is an important part of this kind of conversation for many families, be sure not to send emotionally mixed signals. For example, saying “ Amy’s in a happier place now, she’s in Heaven,” We’re all very sad because we’ll miss her very much, but she’s with God now,” both explains the emotional reaction the child can see, and reassures them.

Ultimately, you should talk to your children openly, answer any questions that they may have simply and directly, and allow your children to grieve in any way they want to, and reassure them.

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