Discussing Death with Children
Experiencing the death of the loved one is painful enough on its own. But having to explain to a child that Daddy or Grandma won’t be here to do fun things with anymore makes the experience all the more difficult. As a parent or significant adult in a child’s life, they will look to you for support, answers and advice while they work their way through their grief and develop an understanding of death. The following information is a guide to help you discuss death with a child.
Explaining Death to a Child
Now that you understand how children grieve, what can you do as a mom, uncle, grandpa or close family friend to help them get through this? The following is a list of do’s and don’ts to help you when talking to children about death compiled by NFDA grief educator and minister Victor M. Parachin.
DO be honest about death. As hard as it may be to break the news to a child, honesty is the best policy. It is far worse for a child to accidentally discover the “secret” and then be told “We thought it was best not to tell you.”
DON’T use euphemisms. Explaining death to a child as “Uncle Johnny went on a long trip” or “Grandma Betty is sleeping” may instill fear in the child of going on a trip or to sleep.
It is better to explain in simple phrases like “dead means a person’s body has stopped working and won’t work any more.”
DO help children express their feelings. Encourage children to cry-out their grief and talk out their thoughts and feelings about death.
DO be a good listener. Like adults, children need to talk about the loss and their feelings connected to it.
DON’T tell a child how to feel. Let a child experience and express grief in their own way.
DO offer continuous love and assurance. Children need to know they are loved to feel secure. By being present and available during the difficult mourning process, parents can help their children bear the pain.
DON’T hide your grief from children. Seeing you grieve will let children know that it is normal and healthy to cry and feel sad after death.
DO invite others to help your children. Often, someone outside the family can provide much needed additional comfort, concern and care.
DON’T assume children will just “get over it.” Whether you are dealing with a young child or adolescent, be proactive and provide all of the comfort and consolation you can.
DO nurture faith but DON’T blame your personal religious god. Often a death will draw religious questions from a child. Explaining to a child that “God needed daddy,” or “It was Allah’s will,” can create future spiritual problems. Instead, remind your child that “Buddha shares our pain and will help us get through the crisis.”
Commonly Asked Questions about Children & Grief
Like adults, each child’s reaction to death will be unique and may be experienced on many different levels.
Signs or symptoms of grief can include, but are not limited to:
- Acting-out behavior
- Tiredness, lack of energy
- Changes in grades
- Sleep disturbance
- Increased “accidents”
- Headaches, stomach aches or skin rashes
- Difficulty with concentrating or focusing
- Regressive behavior, such as thumb sucking, bed wetting or clinging.
- Unlike adults, children have a difficult time sustaining strong feelings. Therefore, mood swings and outbursts of emotion are common.
Should children attend funerals?
Yes. Attending the funeral allows the child to be a part of the family at a time when they need love and attention the most. If the child is leery of the funeral, perhaps you can arrange a private moment before or after the service for the child to say goodbye. Or ask your funeral director if their facility has a playroom where that child could stay until the service is complete.
The important thing is that the child is with friends and family and not isolated from the situation.
Do children need an advance explanation of what to expect at a funeral?
Learning what to expect at the funeral is very reassuring for children. Be honest and clear when explaining the details.
Remember, children take things very literally so try not to use euphemisms in your explanations. For young children, simple statements are sufficient. For example, explanations like a funeral is a way to say “goodbye” or a casket is a nice box that holds the body, will help them understand.
How can we protect children from the loss?
It is impossible to protect children from the pain of losing someone they loved. Trying to hide the death from them will only delay their inevitable realization that the person is no longer a part of the child’s life. It is better to include children in the mourning experience and teach them a healthy way to deal with their feelings.
Should children see their parents and/or family grieving?
Yes. Children learn how to express their own feelings by example. If a child is able to witness important adults in their life openly grieving, then they too will be able to express their feelings of loss. Sharing how they feel is often an essential part of the healing process.
How can adults help a grieving child?
Adults need to provide a supportive, caring environment in which children are allowed to openly express their feelings. This includes hugging the child, listening to them talk about their feelings, letting them know it’s ok to cry, and that they will not feel such deep sadness forever.
Some children may want to be more creative in how they express their emotions. Writing a letter to the deceased, drawing a picture, or composing a song are all excellent ways to release grief and pain. These projects also can be included in the ceremony, giving the child a meaningful way to say goodbye.
Can loss permanently scar a child?
Often children are more resilient then we think they will be. With support, love and comfort from you and the other important adults in their lives, children adjust and learn to live with loss.
Five Simple Ways to Help a Grieving Child
1. Be there for the child. Listen when they need to talk, and hug them when they need comfort.
2. Share fond memories about the loved one with the child, and encourage them to share their own memories.
3. Encourage the child to draw a picture or write a letter to their loved one. These items could be placed in the casket or displayed during the cremation.
4. Frame a picture of the loved one for the child or give the child another memento to remember their loved one by. (i.e. coins that were in their pocket, a favorite pin, etc.)
5. Involve the child in the funeral. Let them read a poem or letter they have written, sing or play a song during the service, or even just attend the funeral with family and friends.
The content on this page was provided courtesy of the National Funeral Directors Association.