Talking with Kids about Death
Every child is unique, and every grief reaction is different. Children are always growing and changing, adapting to new skills that come with maturity. Therefore, it can be difficult to prescribe general rules about how to talk to children about death. If you’ve done any reading on the Internet, you have likely come across plenty of “do not’s:” do not say “I know how you feel;” do not say, “they’re in a better place;” do not say “it is part of God’s plan.” All these “do nots,” while helpful pointers, can make us nervous and frighten us right out of saying anything at all to kids. But if we refuse to talk to children about death, or we somehow signal that we must remain silent about loss, we are doing a disservice to the child and missing an opportunity to help them understand and make sense. Rather than explore what to avoid, let’s talk about proactive steps you can take to help your kids understand death.
“DO’s” for helping kids
Take off your adult lens. Know that your child experiences loss differently than you do and will have different feelings and fears. Children aren’t smaller, less-equipped versions of adults. Do put yourself in their position and figure out how they really feel.
Pretend you are answering to an alien. This may sound insensitive, but by imagining you’re talking to an alien, you can take the emotion out of your message and focus on clear, simple language.
Answer the question, the whole question, and nothing but the question. When responding to your children about death, try to stick to the exact content of their question and address only what they have specifically inquired about. Otherwise, you risk giving them more information than they are ready for or can assimilate and this can confuse them.
Expect repetition. As you probably have already discovered, children need to hear something over and over before they understand and internalize it. Your child may ask the same questions you’ve already answered a hundred times already. This is normal. Similarly, as they cycle back through their grief, you may see questions or patterns re-emerge that you thought had been retired. This is common enough that social scientists have given it a term: re-grieving.
Lean on your faith. All religious traditions provide explanations for what happens when a living creature dies. Rely on your particular beliefs when discussing death with your child (i.e., “in our faith, we believe that even when someone’s body dies, their spirit lives on in heaven and in our hearts”). Even if you are agnostic or vaguely spiritual, you might find different religious interpretations helpful in talking to your children.
Be a Model. For better or worse, children look to adults in their world for their reactions to make inferences about how they should think, feel, and behave. Their understanding relies heavily on adult understanding, both what’s communicated to them verbally and non-verbally. Modeling a sensitive, attuned, proactive and appropriate response to loss goes a long way in helping children understand their own grief.
You can read more about effective ways to talk with kids here (Create stories: To talk or not to talk?) and here (Kids seek validation: The Subway & Dr. Seuss).
What other tips have you incorporated when having difficult conversations with the children in your lives? Leave a comment below.
Dr. Emily McClatchey is a child psychologist and mother of three young children. She is the founder and creator of Kidolences,® specially-formulated care boxes to help kids manage loss and change. Send your love to a child at www.kidolences.com.