Talking to children about death

Don’t put your own grief aside – family counselling may help surviving family members through this difficult time.

The events surrounding the death of a loved one generally results in a very difficult and confusing time for a family.  Young children are often doubly confused as the do not always understand what is going on and may not know how to express what they are experiencing.  It may be normal for young children not to grieve at all initially, as they might not yet understand the finality of death.  Often times this grief is suppressed and only surfaces much later.   Children may also react to the death of a loved one by displaying regressive behaviour, acting out or becoming overly clingy.

When talking to children about death, it is important to keep in mind that the conversation must be aimed at the child’s ability to understand what is said.  Not all children of a certain age-group will understand death in the same way.

Here are some important points to keep in mind when talking to children about death: 

  • Children often model their expression of grief on that of the significant adults in their lives, so it is important to not to hide your grief from them.  
  • Children often reveal that what they missed most are the rituals associated with the loved one who has died – the songs their mom used to sing on Christmas morning or the biscuits she would bake for the last day of school, etc.  Try to be sensitive to these rituals and try your best to continue them wherever you can.
  • You might have to explain the same thing a few times over when talking to children about death.  Keep in mind that the information might be very difficult for them to accept and the gravity of the situation might not all sink in at the same time.
  • Stick to familiar routines as much as possible as these give children a sense of stability. Even being consistent with your discipline technique is vitally important at this stage.
  • Don’t use euphemisms when talking to children about death.  Use the word “dead” and avoid saying that a loved one has gone to sleep, went away or has been lost.  I have had to counsel numerous children over the years who were terrified of going to sleep – fearing that they themselves might die during the night.
  • Answer only what your child asks.  Do not give them more detail than they are able to handle at too young an age.
  • It is up to each family to decide whether children should attend the funeral or not, but whatever your decision – it is vitally important that you provide your child with an opportunity to say goodbye.  Choose a ritual that fits with your family values and have your children play an active role in this personal ceremony. 
  • I find that children who have lost a parent often miss the idea of a parent just as much a they miss the actual parentdon’t become impatient with them if they still mourn a parent years after the parent has died and encourage them to talk to you about their feelings.
  • Children might fear the death of other loved ones and may need a lot of re-assurance that existing family members are safe and healthy.
  • You don’t have to have all the answers.  Children may want to know where a loved one has gone after they have died.  In answering this difficult question, you may want to say something like: “Well, I don’t really know. Nobody does.  Here is what I think happens to people after they die … What do you think?”
  • It’s not possible to always shield children from grief and heartache – by supporting them in their grief we are helping them build essential emotional resources to cope with similar situations throughout their lives.
  • Remembering the person who died is an important part of the grieving process.  Children might have a need to keep talking about a loved one who has died or might find comfort in a special keepsake.
  • Don’t put your own grief aside.  This may be a completely overwhelming time as you try to cope with your own emotions as well as the practicalities of having life resume its natural rhythm.  It is important to seek family counselling or support to help you and your family through this difficult time.

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