The death of a loved one can mark an emotionally trying time for many adults. Add on explaining death to children, and grief becomes, well, complicated. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to help children understand and process the complex emotional reactions that come with loss. However, it is beneficial to consider the following key elements when discussing death with children:
1. Acknowledge and Process Your own Grief – Easier said than done, I’m sure. However it is imperative for you to allow yourself time and space to grieve. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, in her book On Death and Dying, outlined stages related to grief that include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. You will likely experience various emotions that leave you feeling tired, overwhelmed, and simply spent. But, if you have children, then you know that you need to save just a bit more (or a ton more, depending on your little ones) energy for them.Margeaux* was busy making dinner, focused on the clock in order to finish in time to pick up her daughter from dance class. She received a text from her sister with questions about funeral arrangements for their mother, who recently passed away. Zoned in on the text communication, she snapped “Just a minute! Can’t you see I’m busy?!!” at her son Cameron, age 7, who loudly asked for a glass of milk. Margeaux hadn’t noticed that he asked her three different times.
Take time for yourself to grieve and cope. Process your reaction, whether the death was anticipated or not. Recognize that, in order to best care for others, you must first care for yourself.
2. Reflect and thoughtfully plan your approach to discussing the death of your loved one with your children. This is an important discussion, and likely one that they will remember, especially if it is their first experience with death.
“Remember how Poppop has been sick and Daddy visited him at the hospital the other night?” Tyrone said while sitting with his wife and children. He reached out and took their hands in his own and continued, “Poppop went to heaven last night”. Paloma, age 5, tilted her head to look at her father, “He died?” she asked with a quiver in her voice. Tyrone nodded and Paloma buried her head in her mother’s lap, sobbing.
Your plan should reflect your personal, family, and cultural values. That might include a spiritual or religious tone, it might not. Be genuine. If you are not particularly religious, then it might be confusing for your child if you use a religious tone in framing your discussion.
The bottom line is that it must fit for you and for your family. Include both parents or primary caregivers, when possible and when appropriate. You might find it helpful
to consult with others – friends, family members, mental health professionals, your pediatrician, clergy or spiritual leaders.
Factor into your discussion the child’s relationship with the loved one who has died. The death of a pet or a loved one with whom the child interacted frequently will likely have a bigger emotional impact on the child than the passing of a distant relative.
Take time to prepare.
3. Consider your child’s age, cognitive development and tailor your discussion appropriately. A two year old child will process death in an extremely different manner than a six-year old, for example. Use appropriate language at a level your child can understand. Don’t overcomplicate the discussion; keep your statements short and simple.
Karen had rehearsed her lines over and over in her head before delivering them to her son, Tommy, age 5, “Paw Paw became an angel last night. Now he can watch over you like the other angels." “Can I see him?”, Tommy asked. “No, honey, we can’t see him anymore,” she answered softly. Tommy smiled and looked up towards the angels.“Hi Paw Paw!” he said, waving in the air. Karen chuckled and hugged him tight.
Allow time for your child to process and react to the news. Allow time for questions and answer them as best you can. Keep in mind, it’s okay, and valid to say “I don’t know”.
4. Be truthful, no matter your child’s age. Even if your child is too young to process the meaning of death, acknowledge the presence of the emotional aura. Children have keen perception and can sense when something is different. They can sense your emotional reaction even if you are not aware that you are exhibiting emotions.
Rashad sat on the couch, laptop open on the coffee table in front of him, gaze fixed on the wall, his mind jumping from memories of his grandmother to work deadlines to the basket of unfolded laundry on the floor. Although he knew the death of his grandmother was possible, he did not anticipate the heaviness he would feel in his heart. He felt a tug on his pajama pants as his 3 year old daughter, Alynn, climbed onto his lap. “Daddy, are you sad because Grandmom is not well?”
Children can also sense deception. In certain circumstances, sharing the “entire truth” might not be necessary. In some cases it might be damaging. Use your judgment and, again, thoughtfully plan the framework for your discussion.
5. Consider individual aspects of your child. Together with age, developmental level, and relationship to the loved one, each child has a unique personality and temperament. You know your child best. Keep in mind special considerations and allow extra tolerance for behaviors that might be otherwise be unacceptable. Grief can be confusing for individuals at all ages. It can be especially difficult for children to understand their thought processes and emotions.
“I’m not going to school today”, Liam, age 12, informed his father as he came in to Liam's bedroom a few days after their 10-year old dog had died. “Why not, Liam?” Harvey asked. “I’m just not”, he answered, and rolled over to face the wall.
Some children manifest distress in a physical manner (e.g., tummy aches, headaches). You might note behavioral changes (e.g., decreased appetite, increased agitation, more frequent tantrums), variations in sleep patterns, and/or waking due to nightmares.
Even if your child’s behavior at home appears unchanged, it can be a good idea to write a note to your child’s teacher(s). Simply alerting the school of the death is helpful in creating a safe and supportive environment. At times, children may seem “fine” or “normal” at home, but might act out their emotions, their frustrations, at school or with peers. When educators have awareness, they can be an excellent resource for your child.
6. Connect with your child. Again, death is a difficult time for people of all ages. Hug your child, spend time with your child. Read an extra bed time story if they ask. Offer to if they don’t ask.
Cierra became frustrated when her son, age 9, suddenly became whiny and seemed to need her for everything. “Jay, you can choose your own clothes for school tomorrow, you’re a big boy”. Following the death of Jay’s father, Cierra struggled to juggle all of her responsibilities. It was subtle, but she saw a twinge of hurt in Jay’s eyes and felt foolish for dismissing his needs. She took his hand in hers and walked to his closet.
Some children regress in times of extreme distress, like the death of a parent or loved one. Most times these are temporary stages and children will bounce back. During difficult times, be more forgiving of your child’s behavior. Parenting boundaries are important, certainly, but love and connection are powerful tools in the healing process.
7. Model healthy processing of grief. Your child will look to you, to your actions for guidance. Remember that grief is a process, and not one that passes quickly. Allow and encourage your child to talk about his or her reaction in days, weeks, and months to follow.
Sasha, age 4, climbed up onto the stool in the kitchen and clumsily pulled the family calendar from the hook on the wall. “Look, Daddy”, she said while pointing to a photo of her aunt who had died the month before, “remember when we fed the ducks with Aunt Mimi in the summertime?”
Create activities to honor the memory of your loved one. Look at photos, create art, talk about fun memories. Too often folks avoid broaching the subject of death, hoping that silence will erase the pain. However, allowing space for discussion and processing leads to healthier coping and can strengthen a child’s resilience.
8. Seek professional help. Although death is a natural, unavoidable part of life, it can be traumatic. When addressing the grief process, there are times when a child, or the family as a whole, might require or benefit from professional treatment by a licensed mental health professional. Asking for help should not be viewed as a sign of weakness.
Rick felt helpless in his attempts to comfort his daughter Lara, age 13, after the death of her best friend from Leukemia. She progressively became increasingly withdrawn and spent most of her time in her bed. She stopped attending soccer practice and turned down the opportunity to attend a concert of her favorite band. Despite his best efforts, Rick could not seem to help Lara in the manner she needed.
Prolonged periods of distress with symptoms of depression and anxiety (e.g., feelings of sadness, change in appetite, too much or too little sleep, lack of motivation or enjoyment in daily activities) should be addressed with professional treatment. “The duration and expression of ‘normal’ bereavement vary considerably among different cultural groups” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Consultation and/or treatment with a mental health professional can aid in distinguishing between Uncomplicated Bereavement and more serious concerns such as a major depressive episode.
Loss is difficult for individuals both young and old. Support of family, friends, teachers, mentors, and loved ones is important for healing. There are no “right words” to be said. No magic potions will repair the hurt. Often simply being there, in other words offering physical and emotional presence, can best help to communicate care and compassion.
In loving memory of Elwood “Paw Paw” Kreider, March 23, 1928 – February 12, 2016.
A special thank you to Sara Kreider, Kristi Kreider-Davis, Chad Kreider, and Mike Kreider for offering their thoughts.
*Names used in vignettes have been changed to maintain privacy.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC.
Kubler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying. New York: Macmillan.
Talking to Children About Death: http://www.hospicenet.org/html/talking.html
Saying Goodbye: Talking to Kids About Death: http://www.parents.com/toddlers-preschoolers/development/social/talking-to-kids-about-death/
How to Talk to Kids About Death: http://childdevelopmentinfo.com/how-to-be-a-parent/communication/talk-to-kids-death/
Dealing with Death: http://www.fredrogers.org/parents/special-challenges/death.php
Talking to Children about Death: http://www.webmd.com/palliative-care/talking_to_children_about_death