Here are tips and guidelines for talking with children about death and loss, from the everyday inquiries kids might have about the subject of death to information on talking with kids following the loss of a loved one.
When should you talk to children about death?
Death, like sex, is one of those topics that parents tend to avoid at all costs. They may be concerned that talking about death will scare a child. Or they might believe that discussing the topic could increase a child’s depression, pain, or despair.
In reality, the exact opposite is true. NOT talking about death will scare your child more than talking about it. When parents try to shield children from the harsh realities of our world it doesn’t make the subject go away, and it doesn’t mean a child’s questions cease to exist. It only means they go unanswered and the child is abandoned to their own irrational beliefs and unconstrained fears. And as painful as talking about a personal loss might be, caretakers will hurt the child more by avoiding the subject. When this happens, they are left confused and insecure, feeling more frightened and alone than ever. Providing a child with a solid explanation about death and the process of grieving will actually provide them comfort, not increase their pain. (Emswiler & Emswiler, 2000)
So you should begin talking about death just as soon as your kids begin to get inquisitive about the subject or bring it up on their own, which usually starts to occur in the preschool or early elementary school years. And if a child has just experienced a loss, you need to go out of your way to MAKE opportunities to discuss the topic, spending ample time talking with them about death, even if they don’t ask questions outright.
General tips for talking with kids about death
The upcoming sections will explore ways of explaining this difficult topic to kids, as well as discuss answers to specific questions that a child might ask. But first, here are some broad guidelines you should try to follow:
1. Be as open, honest, and factual as the child’s age permits. (Be sure to read our section on a child’s understanding of death ahead of time so that you know their limitations in processing the topic.) Whether the topic is sex or death or anything else, there is never a need nor a benefit in trying to hide reality from children.
2. Listening is as important as talking. Communication is a two way street, and parents often spend their time talking down to a child without listening for the needs and issues they need you to address.
3. Try to avoid analyzing the child’s conversation as it occurs, which could lead to interruptions. (Emswiler & Emswiler, 2000) The communication process may be hindered or even shut down completely if too many interruptions occur.
4. Give the child plenty of attention and empathy so that they feel comfortable and safe in opening up to you. Never diminish a child’s feelings or insinuate that their fears or emotions are petty, which will shut them up immediately.
When Kids Loose Someone They Care About
Talking over the death of a loved one is never easy, and certainly isn’t fun. In fact, this is one of the biggest problems. Parents tend to avoid subjects they find difficult themselves, and since the child is equally disoriented and upset, they tend not to ask, or not know how to express themselves. Much like the topic of sex, this double whammy of child ignorance and confusion combined with parental discomfort about the topic far too often means that the event passes by with little more than a few cursory words or brief conversations. This is of grave consequence, since children who are told about death in a simplistic or dismissive manner often grow up with many misconceptions and a great deal of anxiety relating to the topic. This in turn leads to an unhealthy approach towards bereavement. (Emswiler & Emswiler, 2000)
Conversations with children about death are more art than science, and the best thing you can do is to have them as often as your child is willing. Talking it over is what helps both you and your child sort through the grieving process. Yet we do have several guidelines that will help you get started and make these conversations easier, more effective, and more comforting for the child.
Tips for talking with children about the loss of a loved one
1. Children have a low threshold for painful feelings, and so they may try to avoid talking about their pain. (Webb, 1993) It’s important for caretakers to realize that a lack of dialogue about the death does not necessarily mean everything is ok. It’s quite common for kids to appear to be coping well initially and then regress later on, hitting a parent with all sorts of feelings they never realized the child was bottling in. The truth was that they were never OK to begin with, and so what seems like regression is only the emergence of these difficulties they’ve been bottling up inside. So don’t depend on your child to bring up topics that bother them, or wait for them to come to you with their struggles. Create opportunities for discussion yourself.
2. It’s not uncommon for children to repeatedly ask the same questions over and over again in their search for reassurance on these issues. This may seem frustrating to the adults around them, who probably find the discussions tough and upsetting as it is. When a child asks something they’ve already answered 3 times a week for the past month following the death, it can test one’s patience. Remember, this repetition of inquiry is not because they’re not listening, but because they seek comfort in the form of your answer. It’s similar to the child who utters a statement to a parent, then follows it with the incessant “right mom?” several times in succession as they seek affirmation. When they are feeling insecure, children seek affirmation, and the way children work through insecurity about death is to continually seek input from their caretakers that will help them process this information. This need for repetition is a healthy sign that they are working to process what happened and incorporate it into their world views.
Much like reading a favorite story over and over again, when it comes to a tough and largely incomprehensible subject such as death, children need repeated comforting and continued dialogue to come to grips with their world – a world that has been shattered by the loss of a loved one and now must be put back together. Try to understand this, and don’t get frustrated if it seems like you’re answering the same questions over and over again. Maintain your patience, try to add a slightly different perspective each time, and answer their questions again and again just as robustly as you would the first time. Remember that just like learning a tough new math concept, it will take time, practice and repetition for children to internalize this information into a workable concept of the world.
3. It’s OK to show emotion yourself. Adults are often afraid that they might have an emotional breakdown during their conversation with a child, and so they avoid the topic because they want to put on a brave face. This should not be a concern. If you do break down, so what? Who is the idiot that said you have to hide your grief and pretend to be a non-emotional robot after a loved one dies? Crying in front of (or with) your child after the loss of a loved one is actually HEALTHY, because it allows your child to see that crying is a natural and acceptable reaction to loss. Crying naturally acts as a release of pent up emotion. It shows that you’re saddened by this loss as well, and provides validation to the child’s own feelings, letting them know they’re not alone in their grief.
Showing emotion or grief is not the same thing as being a parental train wreck who leaves the child trying to parent the parent. So long as you keep it together in your everyday life, and so long as you maintain your composure through it all and accompany such displays with reassurances that you’ll all pull through this, it’s perfectly acceptable to express sadness and grief in front of your child. It’s OK to cry together and comfort each other as a family. The only problems arise when you become too unstable to be a comforting parent figure, but we can’t emphasize enough that this is not the same thing as hiding your feelings and pretending to be devoid of sadness.