One of the most difficult things to talk with our children about is death. We like to think we can protect our children from all pain and hurt in the world, but death is an inevitable part of life, and children will see and experience it in their lives. If you find yourself in a position where you need to, or are ready to, talk to your child about death then here are some tips.
A Note on Avoidance
In parents attempt to protect their children, they sometimes avoid conversations about topics such as death. However, not talking about it doesn't mean your child doesn't see, hear, and formulate his own understanding of death. Children see dead bugs, animals on the road, and hear about death from friends. The only thing avoidance does is leave our children to formulate their own understanding alone. And in many cases, what they come up with can be scarier than reality.
Use Real and Age Appropriate Language
It is important to use real and appropriate language when speaking with our kids about death. Use the words dead and dying. Do not say the person went to sleep and didn't wake up. This might seem easier or nicer for the child, but all it does is confuse them and create an unnecessary fear around sleeping. Use simple and age appropriate language that addresses what actually happened. You can say that sometimes our bodies stop working and living things die.
Answer Questions Honestly
Children will have questions. If we don't answer their questions openly and honestly they will fill in the gaps on their own. One that most children have after a loved one dies is if a parent might also die. In these cases, the child is looking for a sense of safety and security. The honest answer is yes, a parent might die. You might say that this is something that could happen, but if that were to happen they would be taken care of by _________. You could also say things that make this unlikely, such as being in good health and being careful.
Different Ages and Understanding of Death
Infants - Infants still grieve loss of parents. They recognize that a caretaker is missing and might be extra fussy and have difficulty sleeping. It is important for the new caretaker to hold and nurture infants to help them feel safe and comforted.
Pre-Schoolers - This age will have difficulty understanding the permanency of death and might continuously ask when the loved one will be back. This can add to the difficulty of a grieving parent. It is important at this age to answer with simple, concise, and honest language. Understand that you might have to say the same thing multiple times.
5-9 - At this age children start to understand the permanency of death. They associate death with bodily harm and are more interested in the biology of death. At this age you might get questions about how someone dies or how the body stops working. They might also think at this age that their thoughts or words caused someone to die.
Adolescents - Adolescents understand the finality of death. They might wonder about their own death, death of caregivers, and they start formulating their own spiritual beliefs. Older teens who are grieving struggle with trying to be in control of their feelings and not relying on caregivers, while still desiring comfort and support. You might see some push/pull at this age and seclusion in an attempt to hide their emotions. For adolescents, having someone to talk to is important, but don't be offended if you as the parent aren't that person.
Be Open For Questions And Patient
Children grieve at their own pace (as do we all). Let children know that you are available to talk with them and be open and honest when they are ready to talk, but don't push them when they aren't ready. Also, don't be surprised if it seems like they go in and out of grief faster than adults. Children have the ability to move between emotional states faster than adults and this is a part of their age.
For additional information about speaking to a child about death please see the following resource:
National Institutes of Health - "Talking to Children about Death"
If you or someone you know is struggling with the greiving process, you can contact Resolve for support. James McMillian is experienced in grief therapy for adults and children and our play therapists can help young children work through their grief.
James McMillian, LCPC
Resolve Counseling & Wellness
Prairie Village, KS