Dealing with death is a complicated process for people of any age, but it can be especially difficult for children facing it for the first time. Fortunately, parents can make this process a little easier by talking to their kids about death, supporting them through a grieving process, and answering questions that are likely to arise. Here are some tips on approaching the topic of death with your children and how to have a supportive conversation about it with them.
Consider your child's needs
Each child is unique, so their responses to death will also be individual and vary based on age, personality, and maturity. For example, some children may be open to talking about their feelings and concerns and be interested in asking questions, while others may need more time to process the news before asking questions.
Additionally, their age may impact their understanding of death. For example, children under the age of eight may not understand the permanence of death and may feel as though they are in some way responsible for the death. An older child would react differently. Kids in their teens will understand that death is permanent and a part of life. Instead, they may feel more conflicted about the meaning of life and death rather than feel guilt or responsibility for the death itself.
Ultimately, each child's needs will be unique, so it is important to let children set the pace, give them a space to process their emotions and offer them the support they need to help them get through this difficult conversation.
Be honest and straightforward
When it comes to a complex topic such as death, parents should be honest and straightforward. When referring to death, don't use words and phrases that soften the negative news (e.g., Your grandmother "passed away"). Although the intention is good, using euphemisms can confuse your child and complicate the grieving process. For example, if you tell a child that you "put the dog to sleep," the child may think that the dog will wake up eventually. They may also begin to associate sleep with death, which could lead to a fear of sleeping. To avoid confusion, explain the topic clearly so that the child is likely to understand.
It is also essential to use specific words when referring to an illness. Avoid general terms such as "sick." If someone had a heart attack, explain what that is, and be prepared to answer questions about the illness.
How to have a conversation about death
Here is how to discuss a death with your child:
- Help them prepare mentally and emotionally by letting them know that you want to have a serious talk about something important.
- Lead the discussion by saying, "this is a difficult conversation, but it's important that we have this talk."
- Explain the situation, the circumstance, and the person who is dying or who has died. For example, you might open a conversation with: "I want to talk to you about Grandpa because he has been very sick. And last night, he died." It is also beneficial to ask children what they already know about the topic or situation if they know some details already.
- Be sure to prepare the child for your emotions as well as theirs. Let them know that the conversation may be difficult or upsetting and that it might invoke strong feelings such as sadness or anger, or it might make you both cry.
- Reassure them that all these feelings and emotions are normal and that they should not be afraid to express themselves as they see fit.
Address common misconceptions about death
Children will have questions when dealing with the concept of death. It is essential to encourage them and be prepared to answer them to the best of your ability. Let children know that you are willing to answer all of their inquiries. Tell them there are no topics that are off-limits and thank them for their questions.
A common concern that children sometimes have when a loved one is ill, dying, or has died is that they will catch what has caused the death (e.g., cancer). It is important to reassure children when dealing with an illness that is not contagious and they cannot catch it. Or if it is contagious, like COVID-19, then explain the sensible precautions everyone is or will be taking.
Let them know they can continue to interact with the person if they are ill, as appropriate, and within guidelines provided by a health caregiver. If the person has died, explain that the illness or situation, in the case of an accident, is not a threat to anyone else in the family.
Another common concern that some children have is that they may think they have done something to cause the illness or death. Some children might wonder if they could have done something to cure it. If parents are not completely honest with their children about an illness or death affecting a loved one, they may try to fill in the blanks and conclude that they are responsible. Explain that there is nothing they did to cause it and nothing they could have done to stop it.
When a loved one has died from a specific illness, a child may connect the illness and death. For example, if the child's grandmother died of cancer, the child may assume that anyone who has cancer will die. So it is important to clarify that this is not always the case; maybe their grandmother died from cancer, but their cousin also has it and will not die from it.
Why is the conversation about death important?
Many parents want to protect their children from the life's complexities, including the topic of death. However, it is not something that can be avoided forever. It is an inevitable part of life, so children must be given information and offered support during the process.
Talking about death also instills trust and encourages understanding between parents and children. If someone that a child knows is ill or dying, they should be told. Otherwise, it can cause additional stress or worry. They can also become confused about or over think the situation. This can lead to a loss of trust between a child and their parents. The sooner death is discussed with a child, the greater the likelihood is that they will be able to process and cope with the death of a loved one when it happens
Additional tools and resources
A beautiful, honest portrait of loss and deep friendship told through the story of two iconic polar bears. https://www.amazon.ca/Ida-Always-Caron-Levis/dp/1481426400
The Invisible String
A heart-warming and reassuring story that addresses the issue of "separation anxiety". It will help address children's fear of being apart from the ones they love. https://www.amazon.ca/Invisible-String-PATRICE-KARST/dp/0875167349
The Goodbye Book
A moving story about saying goodbye as told by a pet fish who has lost his companion. https://www.amazon.ca/Goodbye-Book-Todd-Parr/dp/0316404977
Talking About Death Won't Kill You
A practical handbook that equips readers with the tools to have meaningful conversations about death and dying. https://www.amazon.ca/Talking-About-Death-Wont-Life/dp/1770414061/
NPR's Life Kit: Parenting, Episode: Talking with Kids about the End
An audio program from NPR that offers six strategies for talking with kids about death.
Sesame Street Guide to Grief
Tips, videos, children's story, and guide to grief that helps children cope with loss, including segments with Elmo. https://www.sesamestreet.org/toolkits/grief/
A free online resource that helps parents support their children when someone in their life is dying or has died. http://kidsgrief.ca
The New Family Podcast: Talking to kids about death
This episode explores how parents can talk to kids about death in honest ways that they can understand.http://thenewfamily.com/2018/05/podcast-episode-184-talking-to-kids-about-death/
How to Talk to Kids About Anything (Podcast) with Dr Robyn: Death and Dying
Interview with a family grief counsellor.
This blog was graciously contributed to us by the team at Eirene.