How to Talk to Your Child About Death
Whether if it’s a beloved pet, family member, or celebrity hero, death is inevitable and it can impact us in different ways. This is must true when it comes to children who may have never experienced death before.
Obviously, this is a difficult conversation that no parent ever wants to have. But, speaking to your child about death and being honest with them, will make them feel supported and help them through the grieving process.
Whenever this unfortunately happens, here are some tips that you may want to keep in mind when talking to your child about death.
Be honest and straightforward.
“Tell them the ‘facts’ about the death,” clinical psychologist John Mayer told HuffPost. “Don’t sugarcoat what death is or use ‘baby talk’ with a child. Do not use phrases like, ‘Grammy is sleeping.’ This is an opportune time to teach them about death. Don’t shy away from it.”
Board-certified licensed professional counselor Tammy Lewis Wilborn also adds that you should avoid “cutesy language” and euphemisms. “Children tend to think concretely, not abstractly, so when you use language that’s euphemistic, it can actually be more confusing or frustrating,” she explained.
That may sound harsh or uncomfortable. But, it’s important that your child understands the meaning and permanence of death.
Take it slowly.
“Grief is a process that you cannot go around. You have to go through it. So you need to be OK with the pace of the process,” said Wilborn. “It can take some time for a child to return to his or her normal.”
Additionally, you don’t want to overwhelm your child. Remember, they process information in bits and pieces, like when they’re eating.
"They take a bite, maybe two bites, then put it down," Rosemarie Truglio, a developmental psychologist and senior vice president of education and research at Sesame Workshop, told NPR. "That's probably how they're going to experience death as well. They're gonna take a couple of bites. They're gonna go on with their lives. And then they're gonna come back and they're gonna take a couple more bites."
Be prepared for a variety of responses.
“Realize that however you approach this subject, your child will be upset, and perhaps, even angry at the loss,” says Deborah Serani Psy.D. “Accept your child’s emotional reactions. You will have time to address things again after your child's had time to process the initial trauma.”
The most important thing for you to do is to listen and comfort them, while also normalizing and validating their feelings.
Death is scary. So, make sure that you reassure your child. Tell them that it had nothing to do with something that they had said or done. Remind them that they are their loved ones are safe, fatal accidents are rare, as are death related to illnesses like the cold or flu. And, explain that death was not a deliberate choice. The exemption is suicide, which may be an opportunity to discuss mental health.
Help them remember or memorialize the person.
Some parents may avoid talking about the person who has died in order to protect their child. If your child does want to talk about them, tell stories and recall happy memories. If they prefer, encourage them to memorialize the person in a creative and healthy way like drawing pictures, journaling, or creating collages.
Let them participate in rituals like funerals or memorial services.
Do not force your child to attend these events if they do not want to. But, if they are interested in attending, prepare them in advance.
“Tell children what they will see, who will be there, how people may be feeling and what they will be doing,” recommends Serani. “For young children, be specific in your descriptions of what the surroundings will look like. For example, describe the casket and clothes and that the body will be posed. Or if it's a memorial service, talk about where the body is, if it's been cremated, in a closed coffin or already buried.”
You may also want to discuss their worries or concerns so that you both can come up with ways for them to cope. And, don’t hold back your emotions. It’s acceptable for your child to see you expressing your own emotions.
Final words of advice.
Death is never an easy topic for your child, let alone yourself. It’s important to allow as much time needed for bereavement, as well as letting you each grieve in your own way.
However, you don’t have to do this completely on your own. There are a number of books, resources, support groups, and therapists that can help you and your child.