Talking to your child about death is a conversation no parent wants to have. But death is a subject that our kids must face in their lives, some sooner than others. For some, it’s the death of a parent or grandparent. For others, it’s the death of a famous person or the death of unknown people in the news. Last week’s Texas tragedy undoubtedly brought up the subject of death in many homes around the country.
It’s hard for kids to understand the why and the finality of death, but it’s hard too for parents to express the harsh reality mixed with their own grief to a child. Here are some thoughts to guide you in those conversations:
Take the cues from your child.
Obviously, if the death is someone close to you that the child knows, then you may have to initiate the conversation to tell them, but if a tragedy has happened in the news, let your child guide that conversation. They may either bring it up, in which case you would ask them if they have any questions, or they may simply act sad, in which case you would try to draw them out to talk about why they are sad and answer their questions from there.
Share information that is age-appropriate, but just be sure that you are answering their questions in a way that satisfies them, so they don’t search for answers from places that don’t filter information.
It’s okay to show your own emotions.
You don’t need to hide your tears from your kids. They need to see you process your own emotions. They need to see how to grieve. Explain to them how you feel and why you are crying.
Be clear and concrete.
Rosemarie Truglio, a developmental psychologist and the senior vice president of curriculum and content at Sesame Workshop, explains that it’s important to use concrete language when talking to kids about death.
When it comes to describing the what of death to kids — what exactly happens to our bodies and what that means — Truglio says it’s important to be straightforward. That’s because children often struggle to grasp death’s permanence. And parents only complicate matters when they resort to euphemisms. In fairness, we do this to soften the blow for kids, but Truglio says euphemisms can confuse and even scare children.
“Passed away. We’re sorry for your loss. Went on a long, long journey.” Truglio says each of these phrases sends the wrong message to kids. The dead don’t pass, get lost or pack a bag and start walking.
Especially problematic are the words parents often use, when a pet is euthanized.
“We put the dog to sleep. That’s a really big one,” Truglio says, explaining that this is how kids hear those words: “If you’re telling me now that the dog went to sleep and is not going to wake up and died, well, I go to sleep every night. Am I going to die?”
Instead, Truglio says, be perfectly clear:
“When you die, your heart stops. Your body stops working. You don’t eat. You don’t breathe — to give more concrete information about what is the meaning of death,” Truglio says.*
Speak to common fears your child may have about death.
As you talk with your child about death, they may express fears about themselves or their parents dying. Be honest in your answers: “Yes, everyone eventually dies, but you are healthy and strong child and so am I, so there is no reason to worry.” Reassure them that they are safe.
Prepare them for the process of grieving.
Let your kids know that sadness has a way of sticking around for awhile and that’s okay. When they feel sad, tell them that they can come talk to you or to a person they love or feel safe with. Talk with them about how people grieve in different ways and at different paces.
Talking about death with a child is not easy, and many parents want to avoid it. It is one conversation that I did not like having with my kids when they were younger and their grandparents died. However, death is inevitable, and parents need to help their kids understand it and know that it is okay to talk about it.
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