Talking to children about loss is never easy. Whether it’s a friend, family member, schoolmate or pet that passed, it’s likely your child will have some questions.
If you’re feeling unsure about what to say or do—you’re not alone. Each person grieves in their own way, especially children who may be facing a death for the first time. However, it’s up to a trusted adult to talk to children about grief and death to help them understand why it occurs and how to cope appropriately. Keep in mind that depending on the child’s age and the type of loss (ex: a parent versus a pet), each conversation and grief process will be unique.
To help parents and caregivers ease into conversations about death and grief with children, we’ve outlined five steps below.
1. Have a Conversation
Though death is an inevitable part of life, having conversations about such topics is a difficult thing to do with kids. If you’re experiencing grief, it’s likely your child is too. Following a death, start a conversation with your child.
It’s important to approach the subject in a simple and clear manner. For example, “I have some sad news to tell you about grandpa. He passed away last night.” From there, give your child some time to collect their thoughts.
Use your discretion when it comes to sharing details on the cause or manner of death.
2. Provide Answers
Experiencing loss is never easy, and each of us grieves in a unique way. If your child is experiencing grief, comfort them in the best way you know how. Use your best judgment to provide your child with answers if he or she has questions.
Some questions that you may anticipate:
- Why did he / she die?
- How did he / she pass?
- Where will he / she go now?
On the contrary, if your child doesn’t seem to react, that’s okay. It may be too confusing for them to understand the situation.
3. Listen and Comfort
In the days, weeks and months following a loss, your child may experience different emotions. According to the Child Development Institute, children in different developmental stages may understand and react differently to death, including:
- Preschool-aged children usually think death is temporary or impersonal and may not fully comprehend it. They may think the deceased loved one will soon be alive again.
- Kids ages five to nine will have a better understanding that death is final. Some children in this age range will associate death with images like skeletons, and may have nightmares following.
- Children above the age of nine will likely fully grasp the concept of death and may exhibit symptoms of grief similar to adults.
No matter what developmental stage that your child is in, encourage him or her to talk about their feelings, and reassure them that it’s okay to feel emotional. You can start by saying, “I know you’re sad; I’m sad too. We all love and miss grandpa very much.”
By having these conversations, your child will start to feel more comfortable about death and grief, as well as ways to heal.
4. Prepare Your Child For End-of-Life Ceremonies
Saying goodbye to a loved one is never easy. If you plan on having your child attend the funeral or memorial service, you’ll likely want to prepare them. It’s best to let your child know what to expect and where the events will be held. Explain in advance what they will see and what others may be doing.
For example, “While some people may be crying, others may be laughing and smiling. This is a time for us to reflect on grandpa’s wonderful life.”
If you plan on bringing your child to the visitation or gathering, you’ll want to prepare them if the body will be present at this time. If your child has any questions or hesitations, have a conversation about the events that will take place. For example, “As we talk with friends and family, grandpa’s body will be in the room. This is our chance to say our final goodbyes.”
It’s also important to review proper etiquette when attending a funeral or memorial service with kids. Some things to consider include proper behavior and appropriate attire. This will give your child the information they need to properly prepare.
5. Give Your Child Time to Grieve
There’s no timeline for grief. Be sure to check in with your child often to see how they’re feeling and always offer to have a conversation as needed.
As you reflect on the life lived and help your child cope, here are some ideas to consider:
- Look through old photo albums.
- Share stories.
- Visit the memorial or gravesite.
- Cook a favorite family dish.
Healing doesn’t mean forgetting about the person who passed. It means looking back on their life with fond memories.
>>> View our Grief Support page for support groups for children in the Northeast Ohio area.
There are several important conversations to be had with children following a death. It’s up to you to provide the comfort and care they need. For more helpful ways to talk to your children about death and grief, check out our resources page or subscribe to our blog for more information.
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