How To Talk to Children About Death
It's never easy to deal with death.
As adults, it overwhelms us. And it's even harder for children to move through.
Though we know it's an inevitable part of life, talking about death is something most of us aren't really good at because the subject is so painful.
As many of us know, death occurs in many ways. It may be sudden, expected, prolonged or accidental. Part of the experience is finding ways to express what's happened, to make sense of what's happened, and finally, to accept what's happened.
Here are some tips to help you talk about death with your child:
- Tell the truth about what happened right away. The truth gives an explanation for your tears and pain. Being open and emotional can help your child learn how to mourn.
- Be prepared for a variety of emotional responses. Realize that however you approach this subject, your child will be upset, and perhaps, even angry at the loss. 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.
- Make sure to use the words dead or died. Many find using the words dead or died uncomfortable - and prefer using phrases like, passed away, lost, crossed over, went to sleep - but research shows that using realistic words to describe death helps the grieving process.
- Share information in doses. Gauge what your child can handle by giving information in small bits at a time. You'll know what more to do based on the questions your child asks.
- Be comfortable saying, "I don’t know." Having all the answers is never easy, especially during a time of such heartache. It's helpful to tell your child that you may not know about certain things, like, "How did grandpa die?" "What happens to Aunt Rita at the funeral home," "What made Spike run into the street, Mommy?" or other unanswerable questions.
- Cry. Cry together. Cry often. It’s healthy and healing.
- Allow your child to participate in rituals. Let children pick clothing for your loved one, photos for the memorial, a song or spiritual reading. This will help them gain a sense of control of the traumatic loss.
- Let your child grieve in his or her own way. Allow your child to be silent about the death. It’s also natural for a child to feel lonely and isolate themselves at this time too. It’s also common for children to seem unaffected by the loss. There is no right way to grieve.
- Prepare your child for what they will see in the funeral home or service. Tell children what they will see, who will be there, how people may be feeling and what they will be doing. 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. Bring along someone to care for the child if you are distraught.
- Prepare your child for the future without your loved one. Talk about how it will feel to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and special moments without your loved one. Ask your child to help plan how to move through the next calendar event.
- Prepare to talk about thoughts and feelings often. It is likely that you'll have to tend to the subject of death for days, weeks and months to come. Check in and be available for ongoing discussions since mourning is a process.
- Remember to take care of yourself. As parents, we sometimes forget about taking care of ourselves during this time. Children learn what they see, so be a role model for self-care at this critical time.
(Article Adapted: Psychology Today)