You work hard to ensure your children have a positive upbringing. You strive to protect them from harm—both physical and emotional. But as much as you’d like to keep them from encountering pain or suffering, it’s impossible. Death is life’s one inevitability. You can’t make your loved ones live forever, and sadly, your children will discover this for themselves. If you and your family are going through a loss right now, you can help ease your children’s emotional burden by helping them understand death.
Strive for Honesty
Although you might want to hide the truth from your kids, it will make things more difficult if you obscure the truth. Rather than telling your kids that someone “went to sleep,” explain that bodies stop working when people are very old, sick, or are in serious accidents. Your kids should know what happens when people die (e.g., they stop breathing, talking, eating, thinking), but not to the point they are scared of dying. Hospice suggests adjusting your explanations based on your children’s ages and developmental maturity. Children who are very young often see death as temporary or impersonal, whereas children approaching their teen years begin to understand that death is permanent.
The death of a loved one will be hard on everyone in the family, including yourself. Because of this, you might want to avoid talking about it. Although this might seem easier emotionally, your children will have questions that are important to answer. Children need brief answers grounded in simple concepts. Remember: communication occurs even when words aren’t being spoken. Avoiding their questions while you’re still telegraphing grief can confuse or upset them.
Some parents are incredibly harsh with their children when they are trying to explain something. This is one topic where you must be as gentle as possible. Listen to and accept their feelings and fears. Try to channel your own grief or anger into a compassionate, relaxed conversation with your kids. It will be tough, but you can do it.
If you think your child asks a lot of questions on a daily basis already, wait until you have this difficult conversation with them. Be prepared for this and plan out what you’d like to discuss. Think through some questions you think they might ask and decide beforehand how you will answer them. If you feel uncertain about how to prepare for this difficult conversation, you might want to talk to family counselor. This will help you better understand how to approach your child about death, and can even help you deal with grief.
Though it’s difficult to discuss, death is a normal part of life. Everyone will die; it’s just a matter of when and how.
Here is a reading list for parents or teachers to share with kids:
Sad Isn’t Bad by Michaelene Mundy
The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia
I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm
Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley
When Dinosaurs Die by Laurie Krasny Brown
Gentle Willow by Joyce C. Mills
Have you ever had to talk to your children about death or dying? We’d love for you to share your experiences.