“How should I tell my child?” is a question that we hear often regarding the death of a loved one. It is not easy to talk about death, and as adults, it overwhelms us. Imagine how hard it is for children to navigate. Many people struggle with talking about death, even though it is an inescapable part of life.
People say children are resilient and do not grieve. While children can be resilient with the proper tools to grieve, they are still affected by their own grief and the grief of their parents and family members. Many times, children are prohibited or scared to talk openly about the person who died at home or with the family.
The death of a loved one changes the family dynamic. When someone in a family dies, each family member is affected, even the children. Often children are given incomplete information or not given correct details. When someone dies, we are faced with something we are fearful of and struggle to talk about.
Adults are better equipped to cope by virtue of their life experience and understanding. Children do not have an idea of what to expect where death is concerned, nor how to move through grief. If they don’t understand or believe the information given, they will concoct their own explanation of why people around them are so upset. Children are looking to complete the story. They need a beginning, middle and end, so they begin to fill in the gaps with things they make up.
Supporting a grieving child is not about fixing the pain. It is about learning, listening, coping skills, and acceptance. Sometimes trying to see the child’s story, the way they see it can be helpful.
Tips for telling a child about a death:
- Explain death in an age appropriate way. Tell the truth about what happened. Truth will explain tears and pain and changes in the family. Your presence of emotion and openness will help your child learn how to grieve. Openness and truth provide a child an opportunity to process worry and fear. When given the space to express these fears, parents may be surprised that their child may be worried about someone else dying or having their needs met. A child’s life is disrupted in the process of grief, so this reaction from the child is normal.
- Avoid euphemisms. ‘Death,’ ‘dying,’ and ‘dead’ are words we try to avoid; however, words like ‘asleep,’ ‘passed,’ ‘left,’ and ‘lost’ do not mean the same to a child as an adult. Try talking about how the body works. When our bodies do not work, they die. ‘Dead’ means the body is not working. It will not talk, walk, move, see, hear, or think. It cannot feel anything or be happy, sad, or afraid. It will not feel pain, and its parts will not work anymore. Where adults may feel uneasy and awkward with this conversation, children can be curious and have lots of questions.
- Talk about thoughts and feelings often. This is a long process. More than likely you will be speaking about the subject of death for many weeks and months ongoing. Be available and check in with the child.
- Make it clear that showing emotion is okay. It is okay to cry if you feel like crying. when someone dies, people get upset. However, some may not show emotions openly, and that does not mean they did not love the person who died. Be prepared for many different responses. Your child will express a range of emotions over time, including anger. Realize that however you approach this subject, acceptance of your child’s emotional reactions is important. You will have time to address things again after your child has had time to initially process. Sometimes it is important to talk with older children separately. Keep the lines of communication open for children who are continuing to process.
- Share information in doses at a time and gauge what your child can handle. Allow a child’s questions to guide you; you will know what more to do. It is okay to say, “I don’t know.” You may not have all the answers.
- Prepare your child for the future without your loved one. Talk with them about celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, and special moments without your loved one and how that might feel. Ask your child to help plan how to move through calendar events.
- Let your child grieve in his or her own way. It’s healthy and healing to cry. Don’t be afraid to cry together. Some children may feel lonely and isolate themselves. Some may be silent about the death. It’s common for children to seem unaffected by the loss. Just remember, there is no right way to grieve.
Telling anyone that a loved one has died is not easy, and when it comes to telling children, it is often much more difficult. We encourage you to remember that children need to discover their own way of grieving. Trying to stop a child’s process minimizes the significance of the loss and puts a burden on the child. Children need to work out their feelings and have a safe space to talk. You can be that safe place for your child and help them process their grief.
Helpful questions to consider:
What do my children know already?
What do my children understand of what they see and hear?
What are my children’s fears and worries?
Is my child trying to protect me?