Julia McAndrews, Marriage and Family Therapist, Certified Child Life Specialist, Grief Support Specialist
As parents, loved ones, and caregivers, there is the natural desire to protect children. When difficult life events happen, such as the death of a family member, friend, pet, or peer finding the words to explain death to a child can be difficult. Of course, this is a difficult topic for adults, as well. So, what do you share with your children?
First, you may wonder if your child is aware that someone important has died. The short answer is yes. The level of awareness and understanding of death is different among every age group, from infants noticing and responding to their routine being altered to teens who are able to comprehend death and ask complex questions. No matter the age, children’s observations are very in tune with the environment and the people around them. Often, children are able to sense what is happening, even when no one had shared this information with.
With that being said, it is important to have honest and open communication with your child about death and dying, as misconceptions, wonders, worries, and questions will form. When talking with children about death and dying, it’s often helpful to have them feel their heartbeat, the rise and fall of their lungs, walk in a little circle, and make a silly noise, as you remind your child that all these things let us know that they are alive. Following, explain to them that when a person dies, they are not alive anymore. The person’s body is no longer working and cannot do the things that made them alive – their lungs don’t rise and their heart doesn’t beat, the person can no longer talk, walk, or do the things that they once did. That means that the person is dead, and after someone dies they do not come back.
When talking with children of any age, aim to be concrete with words like death, dying, and dead. Though it can be hard to be so direct, phrases like “went to a better place” or “went to sleep” can lead to misunderstandings – getting responses like, “well, when can we go to the better place, too?” or a newly developed fear of sleeping.
When having this conversation, remind yourself that it is okay to share your own emotions and grief. These are difficult conversations to have and being honest with your own emotions helps give your child permission to work through their grief, too. Responses to grief are largely developmental so do not be surprised if your child’s grief looks far different from your own. Kids may return to play right after a difficult conversation like this, taking the grief in spoonfuls. Some children may show lots of sadness while others do not, some may ask the same questions many times over, and some may act out in new ways. Be as patient as you can, know that grief is a process and support your child in the best way you know how. If you need additional support for yourself or your child, reaching out to a therapist can be helpful.
Here is a short list of children’s books help guide a conversation after death:
- Mellonie, B., & Ingpen, R. (1983). Lifetimes: The beautiful way to explain death to children. Toronto: Bantam Books.
- Buscaglia, L. (1982). The fall of Freddie the leaf: A story of life for all ages. Thorofare, N.J.: C.B. Slack;.
- Greenlee, S., & Drath, B. (1992). When someone dies. Atlanta: Peachtree.
- Johnson, J., & Johnson, M. (1992). Where’s Jess? For Children Who Have a Brother or Sister Die (Rev. ed.). Omaha, NE: Centering.
- Romain, T., & Verdick, E. (1999). What on earth do you do when someone dies? Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit.