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  • How to Talk to Children About Death and Help Them Deal With Loss

    by LifeSong Milestones January 10, 2024 5 min read

    How to Talk to Children About Death and Help Them Deal With Loss - LifeSong Milestones

    If you are here, then congratulations on even trying to talk to your child about death. Believe it or not, many people avoid talking about death because it’s uncomfortable and hard. But the truth is, it’s even harder not to talk about it. If you don’t talk to your children about death, they may internalize it, thinking maybe they were being bad and that’s why grandma can’t hug them or give them cookies anymore. The buried emotions both you and your children have can snowball and cause quite a storm in your relationship.

    As a caring adult with more experience and knowledge, it is our responsibility to help children navigate this inevitable aspect of life. By addressing the subject with gentle sensitivity and courage, we can support their emotional well-being and foster a healthy understanding of death. Take a look at advice below that promotes open dialog, so you can teach your child how to be emotionally resilient and handle life’s experiences with a bit more grace and ease.

    1. Check Your Own Emotions First and BE Present in the Moment - This is listed first because it’s the most important and also the only thing you can control during your discussion. Children need you to be present in the moment, especially when you’re explaining something new to them. It will be hard for you, but once you hold space for your own emotions, you can then create space for your child’s emotions.
    As humans, we tend to avoid talking about things that upset us. Don’t rush through it because you feel awkward. Take your time and BREATHE.

    2. Create a Safe Space and Plenty of Time - When initiating conversations about death, it is crucial to create a safe and comfortable environment where children feel encouraged to ask questions and express their feelings. Find a quiet and uninterrupted setting, allowing ample time for the discussion. Ensure the child feels emotionally secure, assuring them that they can share their thoughts and emotions openly without judgment.
    Being in a quiet environment will also help you to be present in the moment. This means there are no distractions like the tv, a phone, etc. Ensure you are not pressed for time, because the last thing you want to do is rush the conversation along.

    3. Age-Appropriate Communication + Use Simple Words - Tailoring your language to the child's age and developmental level is key to ensuring understanding. Younger children may require simpler explanations, while older ones can handle more detailed discussions. Avoid using euphemisms or vague terms such as "passed away" and "gone to sleep," as they may confuse the child or create unnecessary fear. Use simple words and be clear and direct. Instead, use concrete terms like "death" and "dying," explaining that it is a natural part of life's cycle. Listen to your gut when deciding what they are old enough to be told. Bite size information can be helpful for younger children.

    4. Honesty and Openness - It is essential to be honest with children when discussing death. Avoid hiding the truth or providing false explanations, as this can lead to confusion and distrust. Use clear and straightforward language to explain death as the permanent cessation of bodily functions. To help a young child understand, you can explain that when someone dies, they don’t breathe, eat, feel hungry or cold, and they won’t be able to see them again (unless you discuss heaven/religion which is talked about below in number eight.) Reassure the child that death is not a punishment or something to be afraid of but a natural occurrence that happens to everyone eventually.

    5. Encourage Questions - Encourage children to ask questions and share their thoughts about death. Children are curious and may not have ever lost anyone close to them before, so don't just push off their questions. Answer them the best you can. You may feel uncomfortable when you don’t have all the answers, especially when your child expects you to know everything. If you don’t know the reason you can say, “I don’t know,” or, “I’m not sure myself.” Children respond beautifully to this honesty and you may form a stronger bond in these mutual feelings.
    Realize that each child may act differently. Some may not ask questions and instead just cry. Others might not really react at all. Allow them to experience what they are feeling, without trying to control them.

    6. Put Feelings into Words - Children, especially younger ones, might have a hard time expressing/identifying what they are feeling or thinking. You can ask them how they are feeling or what they are thinking. You can share with them how you might be feeling sad because you miss grandma too.

    7. Listen and Comfort - Actively listen to their concerns, fears, and perceptions, validating their emotions without judgment. Avoid providing immediate solutions or trying to fix their feelings; instead, let them explore their thoughts and emotions. This helps children feel heard, respected, and supported during the conversation.
    Also assure them that the death is not their fault and they are safe. Help them count the people they know who are supporting them and will continue to do so.

    8. Addressing Grief and Loss - When discussing death, it is vital to acknowledge the emotions associated with grief and loss. Explain that it is normal to feel sad, angry, or confused when someone dies. Encourage the child to express their feelings, providing reassurance that their emotions are valid. Share personal experiences of loss if appropriate, emphasizing how different people grieve in their unique ways. Explain how grief is a process and how they are feeling is all okay. For more information on dealing with grief, read, “Moving Through the Seven Stages of Grief.”

    9. Spiritual and Cultural Beliefs - Consider the child's spiritual or cultural background when discussing death. Recognize that beliefs and rituals surrounding death can vary greatly across cultures and religions. Encourage children to ask questions about their specific traditions and beliefs, promoting a deeper understanding and respect for diverse perspectives. You can share with them your beliefs, such as you all will be united again in heaven. You can also explain that some people believe in the afterlife, while others do not.

    10. Let Your Child Know What Changes They Can Expect - Children can have a hard time dealing with change. So if grandma can’t pick them up after school, let them know their aunt will be picking them up from now on. Or maybe mom will be helping grandpa for the next week and will be coming back on Sunday.

    11. Discuss Mourning Services and Involve Them - Let them know if there will be a funeral, burial, memorial service, or viewing and what they are. Explain that many people might be crying because they are sad and if it is scary to them they can stay by your side. If your child would like, you can give them an active role in the funeral, like reading a poem or gathering photos to display. Encourage their contribution, however small.

    12. Let Them Know You Are Always Available - Realize you may have to have multiple discussions with them in the future about death. As the child gets older and has new experiences they will need further explanations to develop a better understanding. So let them know if they have new questions or are feeling sad that they can come to you. Then make sure you stay true to your word and make time for your child’s questions when they sporadically come up.

    Final Remarks

    These conversations provide an opportunity to instill resilience and compassion, helping children develop healthy coping mechanisms as they navigate the inevitable journey of life and death. It is a delicate yet vital aspect of their emotional development. It can help them understand that death is not something to fear, but a part of life that is natural, both beautiful and heart-breaking, an end and a new beginning.

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