When someone dies, dealing with your own grief is hard enough. But how on earth are you supposed to help your kid do that too?
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Child psychologist Kate Eshleman, PsyD, talks about explaining death to a child, including age-appropriate ways to discuss the concept of death and dying, and how to recognize when your child needs a little extra help from a psychiatrist.
Why is it so hard to explain death to your child?
There’s no getting around it: Telling your child that someone they knew or loved has died is emotionally draining, and it’s not a task parents look forward to. Also adding to the difficulty is your own grief, as well as your concerns about how to break the news, what your child will understand, and whether you will be able to answer their questions.
“Often when death occurs, there is either a long-term illness or a sudden, tragic event that we don’t have time to prepare for,” says Dr. Eshleman. “If we’re struggling with that, we assume it’s going to be difficult to tell our kids, too. We care about them and we think they will be upset and we want to protect them from that.”
How to explain death to your child
Death is a part of life, so it’s important to help your child get used to the idea that people (and pets) sometimes die.
“It’s something that’s going to be around us that kids will be exposed to,” says Dr. Eshleman, “but depending on their age and development, children have different ideas about what that means, including permanence and the factors involved, such as Like if it’s scary.”
Here’s the truth: nothing will make it easy for you to talk about death with your child. But there are some guidelines you can follow that will help you explain what happened in a compassionate, understandable, and age-appropriate way.
1. Be direct in your statements
You may be inclined to soften the concept of death with euphemisms, but it’s best to be direct and specific (while staying age-appropriate).
For example, if you just say that grandpa is “gone,” children will wonder: where did he go? When is he coming home? Is it the same as when mom goes to work during the day? “This ambiguity causes distress,” notes Dr. Eshleman, “so it’s important to use the right words.”
The same applies in the event of death. Let’s assume grandpa is terminally ill. Instead of just saying, “Grandpa is sick,” try saying “Grandpa has some kind of cancer.” The medicine isn’t working anymore and his body is tired of fighting. We believe he will die soon.”
“You don’t want them to think that every time they or someone they love gets sick, they’re going to die,” says Dr. Eshleman, “so you want to be as specific as possible with that label.”
2. Honesty is the best policy
While you should avoid going into gory or disturbing details, always try to explain the facts to your child, using terms they can understand. “We always want to tell the truth in a developmentally appropriate way,” says Dr. Eshleman.
Remember that children also hear information from the outside world, be it online or from a classmate. The last thing you want is for your kid to come home from school and tell you, “Johnny on the bus said that if you die, your body will sink into the ground, but you didn’t say that!”
By telling your child the truth, even when it is difficult or painful, you maintain their trust and authority.
3. Ask and answer questions
Children are naturally curious and are likely to have questions about death. Try to answer them using the guidelines above: honest and age-appropriate, using factual language, and avoiding flowery euphemisms.
You can also ask them questions. “It’s good to start conversations with open-ended questions,” advises Dr. Eshleman. “You can ask, ‘What do you think is going on with Grandpa?’ or ‘Where do you think Grandpa went?’”
Questions such as “Is there something on your mind?” and “Any concerns?” help you make sure your child understands what is happening. It also gives you a chance to clear up any misunderstandings and address their concerns.
And if your child doesn’t want to talk, that’s okay too. “Don’t force them to engage in conversations they aren’t willing or able to, but give them opportunities,” says Dr. Eshleman.
4. Prepare them for upcoming rituals
Tell your kids what’s coming next so they know what to expect. For example, you might say, “We’re going to the funeral home. There will be a lot of people. A lot of people might cry, and a lot of people you don’t know will come and talk to you.”
You can also explain what they will see there (e.g. flowers, a coffin, the body of the deceased) and what people are doing (e.g. crying, hugging, talking, praying) to help them understand what is to come.
5. Let children make decisions
When you tell children what is going to happen, they can also choose how and if they want to participate. Not sure what age is too young to attend a funeral? There is no right or wrong answer. After you tell them what to expect, you can even let them decide for themselves.
“Again, we don’t want to force a child to do something they don’t want to do,” emphasizes Dr. Eshleman. “It’s about preparing them in advance and then following their example.”
The same goes for every step of the process. For example, if there is an open coffin, they might not want to see the body and might even want to stay in another room, or they might want to visit the coffin and kiss grandpa goodbye. Let your child decide for themselves.
6. Merge your beliefs with facts
If your family is religious, incorporate your beliefs into the way you talk about death while explaining clearly and specifically what is happening.
“For example, you can say, ‘We’re going to grandpa’s funeral, and then they’re going to dump his body in the ground, where it’s going to stay — but his spirit is in heaven,’ or whatever is consistent with your family’s beliefs.” , suggests Dr. Eshleman before.
7. Try not to project your emotions onto your children
Have you ever been to a funeral home where adults are crying and hugging while little children are laughing and playing nearby? It can feel irritating, but it’s actually an understandable reaction for kids.
Simply put, adults have more life experiences than children, which means we can’t expect little ones to know or understand everything we do — including social cues and emotional responses.
“As adults, we have certain thoughts, feelings, and associations that we often project onto children,” explains Dr. Eshleman. “Even when everyone else is grieving, children may not feel that way. It’s not always a time of sadness for them.”
8. Let them feel their feelings
Speaking of sadness, but here’s an important reminder: “When something sad happens, it’s appropriate to be sad,” reiterates Dr. Eshleman. In children, this can manifest itself in behaviors such as:
It’s important to keep an eye on your children to ensure these reactions don’t go on indefinitely. But don’t put the kibosh on them right away. After a loss, it’s natural for children to express their sadness.
It can be helpful for children to see it she also feel your feelings. It’s okay—and even healthy—to let children witness your emotional reactions. For example, say, “I cry because I’m sad. I loved grandpa very much and I am sad that he is no longer here,” shows children that it is normal to feel and express different feelings.
9. Make them feel safe
When someone dies in tragic or violent circumstances, making sense of what to say to children can be even more difficult. And there’s the added layer of making sure they feel protected from harm.
“The truth is that we can’t control a lot of things, from mass shootings to the pandemic, and we can’t always protect our children,” notes Dr. Eshleman, “but it’s important to talk about how they’re doing it are safe and how we continue to try to protect them.”
10. Keep talking about your loved one
Talking about the person who died can help both you and your child deal with the grief, whether it’s through telling stories, looking at pictures, or simply mentioning the person in small bits.
“Let’s say you’re at the grocery store and picking up a box of cereal,” notes Dr. Eshleman firmly. “You can say, ‘Oh, that was Grandpa’s favorite,’ or ‘Remember the last time you had your boyfriend over and had that for breakfast?'”
“Sometimes people are afraid to bring up the dead because they don’t want to make people sad,” she continues, “but it’s okay to be sad. Keep talking about loved ones who have died instead of avoiding it.”
11. Ask for help and consider mental health resources
You don’t have to cope on your own, and you don’t have to help your child cope on your own. If you have trouble figuring out what to say or how to say it, ask others for help.
“Never be afraid to have it done by your child’s pediatrician, or your own GP, or even your friends, just to get their input and feedback,” says Dr. Eshleman.
And if your child seems to be having a particularly difficult time following a loss, those same healthcare professionals can consider how to get them the extra support they need.
At what age should you declare death to your child?
There is no age too young to tell your child that someone they knew or loved has died. Again, honesty is the best policy. But dr Eshleman reiterates the importance of speaking to your children at their level, in a language they can understand.
“It’s very important to meet every child where they are in their development,” she says. “Ask the child what they know and what they understand, and then follow their example.”
Finally, she adds, children are incredibly resilient. “If we do our best to support them before, during and after a loss, they’re likely to come out of it well.”