When someone dies, it’s hard enough to deal with your own grief. But how on earth are you supposed to help your child through it, as well?
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Pediatric psychologist Kate Eshleman, PsyD, talks about how to explain death to a child, including age-appropriate ways to discuss the concept of death and dying, and how to tell when your child needs a little bit of extra help from a mental health professional.
Why is explaining death to your child so hard?
There’s no getting around it: It’s emotionally grueling to tell your child that someone they knew or loved has died, and it’s not a task that any parent looks forward to. Plus, the difficulty is compounded by your own grief, as well as by your concerns about how to break the news, what your child will understand and whether you’ll be able to answer their questions.
“With death, often there’s either a long, drawn-out illness or a sudden, tragic event with no time for us to prepare,” Dr. Eshleman says. “When we’re struggling to cope, we anticipate that it will also be difficult to tell our children. We care about them, and we think they’re going to 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 become accustomed to the idea that people (and pets) sometimes die.
“It’s something all around us and that kids will be exposed to,” Dr. Eshleman says, “but based on their age and development, kids will have varying understandings of what that means, including the permanency of it and associated factors, like whether it’s scary.”
Here’s the truth: Nothing will make it easy to talk to your child about death. But there are some guidelines you can follow that will help you explain what has happened in compassionate, understandable and age-appropriate ways.
1. Be straightforward in your explanations
You may be inclined to soften the concept of death with euphemisms, but it’s best to be forthright and specific (while remaining age-appropriate).
If you just say that Grandpa is “gone,” for example, kids wonder: Where did he go? When is he coming home? Is it the same as when mom goes to work during the day? “That ambiguousness causes distress,” Dr. Eshleman notes, “so it’s important to use the actual words.”
The same is true of the lead-up to death. Let’s say Grandpa is terminally ill. Instead of just saying, “Grandpa is sick,” instead try, “Grandpa is sick with a kind of cancer. The medicine isn’t working anymore, and his body is tired of fighting. We think 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,” Dr. Eshleman says, “so you want to be as specific with that labeling as you can.”
2. Honesty is the best policy
While you shouldn’t go into any gory or distressing details, always try to tell your child the facts while also using terms they can understand. “We always want to tell the truth in a developmentally appropriate way,” Dr. Eshleman says.
Remember that kids also hear information from the outside world, whether it’s online or from a classmate. The last thing you want is for your child to come home from school and tell you, “Johnny on the bus said that when you die, your body goes into the ground, but that’s not what you said!”
By telling your child the truth, even when it’s difficult or painful, you maintain their trust and your authority.
3. Ask and answer questions
Kids are naturally inquisitive and likely to have questions about death. Try to answer them using the guidelines above: honestly and in age-appropriate ways, using factual language and avoiding flowery euphemisms.
You can ask them questions, too. “It’s good to start conversations with open-ended questions,” Dr. Eshleman advises. “You can ask, ‘What do you think is going on with Grandpa?’ or ‘Where do you think Grandpa went?’”
Questions like “Is there anything on your mind?” and “Do you have any concerns?” help you ensure that your child understands what’s happening. It also gives you the chance to clear up any misunderstandings and address their worries.
And if your kid doesn’t want to talk, that’s also OK. “Don’t force them to engage in conversations they’re not ready or able to have, but do offer the opportunities,” Dr. Eshleman says.
4. Prepare them for upcoming rituals
Tell your kids what comes next so they know what to expect, You might say, for example, “We’re going to go to the funeral home. There are going to be a lot of people there. Many people might be crying, and lots of people that you don’t know are going to come and talk to you.”
You can also explain what they’ll see there (for example, flowers, a casket, the body of the deceased) and what people may be doing (for example, crying, hugging, talking, praying) to help them understand what’s to come.
5. Let kids make decisions
Telling kids what’s about to happen also allows them to choose how and whether to participate. Not sure what age is too young to attend a funeral? There’s no right or wrong answer. After you’ve told them what to expect, you can even let them decide for themselves.
“Again, we don’t want to force a child to do anything that they don’t want to do,” Dr. Eshleman emphasizes. “It’s about preparing them in advance and then following their lead.”
The same is true throughout every step of the process. If there’s an open casket, for example, they may not wish to see the body and may even want to stay in another room, or they may want to visit the casket and kiss Grandpa goodbye. Let your child decide for themselves.
6. Meld your faith with the facts
If your family is religious, incorporate your beliefs into the way you talk about death while also clearly and concretely explaining what’s happening.
“You may say, for example, ‘We’re going to go to Grandpa’s funeral, and then they’ll put his body in the ground, which is where it will stay — but his spirit is in heaven,’ or whatever is consistent with your family’s beliefs,” Dr. Eshleman suggests.
7. Try not to project your emotions onto your kids
Have you ever been to a funeral home where adults are crying and hugging while little kids laugh and play nearby? It can feel jarring, but it’s actually an understandable response for children to have.
In the simplest of terms, adults have more life experience than kids do, 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 kids,” Dr. Eshleman explains. “Even when everyone else is grieving, kids may not feel the same way. It’s not always a time of sadness for them.”
8. Let them feel their feelings
Speaking of sadness, though, here’s an important reminder: “When something sad happens, it’s appropriate to feel sad,” Dr. Eshleman reiterates. For kids, that can manifest in behaviors like:
It’s important to keep an eye on your kids to make sure these responses don’t continue indefinitely. But don’t put the kibosh on them right away. In the aftermath of a loss, it’s natural for kids to express their sadness.
It can be helpful for kids to see you feeling your feelings, too. It’s OK — and even healthy — to let children witness your emotional responses. Saying, for example, “I’m crying because I’m feeling sad. I loved Grandpa very much, and I’m sad that he’s gone,” shows kids that it’s normal to feel and express a range of emotions.
9. Make them feel safe
When someone dies under tragic or violent circumstances, it can be even harder to make sense of what to tell kids. And there’s the added layer of wanting to ensure that they feel protected from harm.
“The truth is, there are a lot of things we can’t control, from mass shootings to the pandemic, and we can’t always keep our kids safe,” Dr. Eshleman notes, “but it’s important to discuss the ways they are safe and the ways that we continue to try to keep them safe.”
10. Keep talking about their loved one
Talking about the person who died can help both you and your child cope with grief, whether through telling stories, looking at pictures or just continuing to mention them in small ways.
“Let’s say you’re at the grocery store, and you pick up a box of cereal,” Dr. Eshleman posits. “You can say, ‘Oh, this was Grandpa’s favorite kind,’ or, ‘Remember the last time you had your friend over and you had this for breakfast?’”
“Sometimes, people are afraid of bringing up people who have died because they don’t want to make others sad,” she continues, “but it’s OK to feel sad. Continue to talk 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 alone, and you don’t have to help your kid cope alone, either. If you’re having trouble figuring out what to say or how to deal, ask others for help.
“Never be afraid to run it by your child’s pediatrician or your own primary care doctor or even your friends, just to get their input and feedback,” Dr. Eshleman says.
And if your child seems to be having an especially difficult time after a loss, those same medical professionals can weigh in on how to get them the extra support they need.
At what age should you explain death to your child?
There’s 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 how important it is to speak to your kids on their level, in terms they can comprehend.
“It’s very important to meet each child where they are, developmentally,” she says. “Ask the child what they know and what they understand, then follow their lead.”
Ultimately, she adds, kids are incredibly resilient. “If we do our best to support them before, during and after a loss, it’s likely that they are going to come out of it OK.”