Talking to Children About Death

Death is a painful experience – and one of the hardest parts for parents can be talking about it with their children. Here are some tips on how to handle the topic with your little ones.  

“Death shouldn’t be taboo,” says Kay Johnson, Director of Griefworks B.C., a bereavement resource and referral service. “We don’t want to create pain for our children, so we often think that by not talking about death we’re accomplishing that goal. But kids do have questions, sadness, anger, and pain.”

Grief experts offer these ideas for discussing the death of a loved one with kids.

Be Clear

“Euphemisms can do more harm than good,” says Dr. Nancy Reeves, a Victoria, B.C., psychologist specializing in grief and loss and author of A Path Through Loss. “I’ve seen kids scared to go to bed because they’re told ‘Grandma has gone to sleep.’” Be concrete: “Grandpa’s heart stopped working.” Observes Johnson, “If you say ‘they’re with God,’ the child may wait for the person to return.”

Explain Mortality

Children of different ages perceive and talk about death in different ways, notes Reeves. Until 6 or so, the concept of “dead forever” isn’t easily understood. You need to talk about how the person who died won’t be coming back. Give direct answers, because what a child is imagining may be worse that the reality. At around 6 to 9, children understand mortality, which can cause anxiety about death and raise a big question: Why do people die? Adults need to help children see that death isn’t a punishment and that it occurs for many reasons.

Give Permission for Feelings

By 9 to 11, children don’t want to be thought of as young. They may hide grief from parents, says Reeves, so need “permission” to express their feelings any way they wish. Adolescents are usually torn between wanting to be independent and needing support from their parents, so their feelings can be conflicting and seem intense, says Johnson. Teens often worry that adults will belittle their strong emotions, so show respect for their grief, and ask what they need from you.

Don’t Push

Each child responds to a loss their own way, and not necessarily like you, says Johnson. Children can only take in so much at one time, and will talk when they’re ready. Always be willing to talk, but let your kids be in charge of when and how much.

Show Your Emotions

Don’t try to be stoic for the sake of your children. “If you’re true to your own grief – if your kids see you cry, if you say how much you miss the person who died – you show it’s okay to talk about your feelings,” says Reeves. “By sharing our grief with children, we teach them that strong emotions are normal and won’t harm us if we express them.”

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