Talking to Kids About Grief & Death
Talking to children about grief and loss is one of the most difficult tasks you will face as a parent. If for no other reason than because you are often struggling to understand and process a loss at the same time they are.
Death is a complicated subject to discuss with a child. It’s a topic that makes many adults uncomfortable. And it’s easy to tell ourselves that our children won’t understand what’s happening when a loved one is dead or dying.
But the truth is even very young children will know there is something wrong in their world. And pretending it isn’t happening will only make them feel more unsure and upset.
After a death, kids need reassurance. But also they need the truth. Given to them in a way they can understand.
Because every child and situation is different, there is no perfect script for talking to kids about death and grieving. But these guidelines can help you get started.
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Talking to Your Child About Death & Grief
The way you talk to children about death and grieving will depend on their age and ability to comprehend what happened.
It will also depend on how close they were to the person who died.
When you’re dealing with the loss of a parent, sibling, or grandparent who was a constant daily presence in a child’s life, processing the loss is much more difficult. And will raise more questions in your child.
For more distant loved ones the conversation may be simpler and less involved.
How to Tell Your Child a Loved One has Died
The most important part of talking to your child about death is to tell them the truth. Use clear simple words your child can understand. And use the words “death” and “died” to talk about your loss.
Euphemisms can cause unanticipated anxiety and distress for your child.
Before you begin the conversation consider your child’s ability to understand the situation. Many young children have no experience with or concept of death. Plan an age-appropriate explanation you can give your child if you expect the word “death” will have no specific meaning for them.
An example of a place to start is, “I have sad news to tell you. Grandma died today.” If the word death isn’t meaningful for your child you might say, “Grandma’s body stopped working. She isn’t alive anymore. And she won’t be alive again.”
Then give your child a chance to respond to the news and be prepared to answer any questions. Your child may need time to process the information.
The initial conversation with your child about death should be considered the first of many conversations.
Be prepared for follow up questions to come up for days, weeks, even months after you first break the news while your child processes their loss.
Answering Your Child’s Questions About Death
The questions your child will have about death often depend on how close they were to the person who died. And how big the impact on their own life.
Before you can answer questions, you may want to get clear in your own mind what YOU believe about death. And life after death.
When I was faced with talking to my young child about the death of someone we loved the discussion was based on my belief in heaven and life after death. BUT, even if you believe in life after death, avoid sentimentality or euphemisms that make it unclear that the loved one has left this world forever. You do not want to create confusion or anxiety in your child about what actually happened.
If a belief in life after death doesn’t fit your worldview, consider what you do believe. And what you feel comfortable telling your grieving child. So that you can give clear answers to your child when they ask questions. Here is an excellent post on explaining death to your kids without religion if that might be useful to you.
Be Open to All Your Child’s Questions About Death
One of the most important things you can do for your child after the loss of a loved is to be there to answer their questions. And to take their questions seriously. No matter how strange or trivial they may seem.
Be as honest and straightforward as you can with your answers. If you feel you need time to think about their question to give them a good answer, be honest about that too. And get back to them once you have an answer.
And understand that sometimes kids ask questions about death that seem insensitive or hurtful. Young children especially don’t understand why certain topics or questions might cause you pain.
No matter how much you’re hurting, remember not to take these questions personally. Or react with harshness or judgment.
Expect the same questions to be asked over and over again. Kids look for reassurance of the facts as they take them in. They may also be testing and thinking about your answers while they process new information.
Talking About Grief, Feelings, and Difficult Emotions
When you’re talking to your child about death it’s ok to let them see you get emotional. In fact, letting your child know about your own sadness can be reassuring. Letting them know their feelings are normal and it’s ok to feel upset.
But try to remain calm when talking to your child about death and when answering their questions. Tears, sadness, and other emotions are normal and ok to express in your child’s presence. But if you’re really not in control of yourself and are concerned you will frighten your child, do take some time to excuse yourself where you can grieve as you need to.
Let your child know that everyone grieves differently. And a range of emotions including anger, sadness, confusion and more are all perfectly normal.
Ask about your child’s feelings and listen to their responses.
For the death of someone close to your child, where the loss will be felt daily, consider a grief support group for kids. Or a trained counselor to help your child process feelings and fears that may require more support to work through.
Be Willing to Stop Talking About Death When Kids Need a Break
Discussing feelings of sadness and grief with your child is important. But it is equally important to allow them to move on. Both in the moment and in their lives.
If your child seems ready to change the subject or move on to a new activity after talking about a loss, let them. They may need a break from the intense emotions and feelings. And moving on to a new activity or topic can give them time to process their emotions.
Provide Reassurance to Kids After a Death
After a death, your child may be feeling very unsure of the world around them. There are a few important ways you can provide reassurance.
First, let your child know that death is no one’s fault. It is not their fault or the fault of the person they lost. Reassure them there was nothing they did or could have done that would have changed what happened.
Let them know their loved one did not die by choice. Even in cases of suicide, discuss the loss in terms of mental illness. And let the child know they were not abandoned or to blame.
Reassure your child that they are safe. And their family and friends are safe. Let them know they will always be taken care of. And although we can’t promise anything, let your child know they will not die soon. And neither will you.
Reassure your child that you are always there to answer any questions they have about death, fully and honestly.
Preparing Kids for a Memorial
If it is possible for your child to attend a funeral or memorial, allow them to do so. Explain what will happen in as much detail as possible.
And let your child know you will be with them the whole time. Or which trusted adult will be with them if you can’t be because of your participation in the service.
Let them know what to expect both during the memorial service, funeral, or burial. And what will happen afterward.
Identify strategies for removing your child from a service, or giving them a chance to take a break in a different area if it becomes necessary.
Remembering Your Loved One with Your Child
Grief is a process that can take a long time. Be sure to have ongoing conversations with your child about how they are feeling and about their loved one in the weeks and months, and years that follow a death.
Help your child to remember their loved one by showing them photographs, visiting their grave, and telling them stories about the person who died.
Don’t avoid mentioning the person they lost or treat talking about them as taboo. No matter what feelings it might bring up.
Remembering happy times with a loved one can be very healing. And help you and your child remember that your loved one’s life was so much more meaningful to you than how it ended.
Death & Grief: How to Talk to Your Child About Loss
If talking to your child about the death of a loved one seems overwhelming or if you’re struggling to come up with the answers to their questions, you’re not alone. Death is a difficult topic for everyone to process. Adults and kids included.
Consider these resources for helping you talk to your child about death and loss.
Children’s Books About Death & Grief
This book talks about the cycle of life and death in a matter of fact way. It is not religious. And is very straightforward which is useful when talking to kids about death.
This book explains what it’s like to lose and mourn a loved one from the perspective of a young child. It talks about making a memory box to remember them.
This book answers many questions kids ask about death. And presents information in a straightforward way. It can be a little much for some kids, so give it a preview to see if it’s right for your little one.
This book is a personal favorite of mine. It talks about how we are all connected. Loved ones alive and those who have died. It touches briefly on death but doesn’t dwell on it. It’s a good fit for younger children. And does mention heaven, so make sure that fits your viewpoint before you share it with your child.
This is a wonderful book about grieving for kids in the 8+ age range. Even younger children will enjoy it with the help of a parent. My daughter’s teacher actually loaned her this book when she was struggling with the loss of my grandmother and I found it helpful.
If you have experience talking to your child about a loss please share in the comments anything that was helpful to you and your child.