Talking to a Child About Death: Dos and Don’ts

Talking to a child about death can cause adults stress and uncertainty. Because we know that children lack full emotional and psychological maturity, the temptation is to say nothing and hope the child won’t be affected by the loss or by adults grieving. Experts, however, agree that children deserve to be part of the conversation when a loved one dies. What should you say when talking to a child about death? Here are some widely accepted dos and don’ts:

DON’T avoid the discussion. Kids are perceptive and can tell when something is wrong. Pretending nothing is happening won’t work; a child will know better, but because of their emotional immaturity, may think they are the cause of your grief.

DO keep it simple and honest. Don’t overwhelm the child with too much detail. The concept that human life is not forever is a big one to grasp, so don’t get too involved in specifics of why the death happened. Be sure to keep the discussion at the language level of the child.

DO be aware that children are probably already familiar with death. By the time you begin talking to a child about death, the child has probably already experienced the concept in several ways. They might have a friend whose relative has died, or they might have suffered the loss of a pet, or they have seen a dead animal on the road. Or they have probably heard TV news speaking about death. Your discussion will be important to putting death into personal perspective, but the child has almost certainly had some exposure to the concept already.

DO hug the child and be gentle and loving. It is important for the child to feel your affection and protection. Hugs can be a great way to start the grieving and healing processes.

DON’T expect the child to be your support system. To make the journey through your own grief, you will surely need support from family and friends. However, don’t rely on a child to be your rock. The child will intuitively know you are hurting and may try to help, and that’s okay. But don’t put that responsibility on someone who is not emotionally mature enough to handle it. Instead, seek support from adult family and friends, or trained grief therapists, counselors or clergy when needed.

DON’T expect the child to process the information or grieve the way you do as an adult. Kids are kids. They see the world in a different way. Understanding death is an important part of their emotional and psychological development, but they can’t instantly process it in an adult way. In fact, don’t be surprised or upset if the child reacts by wanting to go play. Depending on the age and maturity of the child, this might be a natural response and part of their own information processing.

DO encourage the child to freely ask questions or be emotional (or not, if that’s the natural response at the time). Whatever the child feels after learning of the death is valid. However, if you believe the child is not honestly coping with the loss or experiencing a natural grieving cycle, seek assistance from a trained grief therapist, counselor or clergy.

DON’T present death as a fairy tale. Children believe in magic and love the happy endings so often presented in children’s stories. But don’t say that grandma has gone to a magical place far away and you’ll all be together soon. Such an approach would plant the idea that grandma is coming back physically, and this would not be a healthy expectation for a child.

DO talk about death before it happens if and when the time seems right. If someone the child knows from TV or the relative of a friend dies, use that opportunity to introduce the subject. It could be easier than waiting for when a beloved family member dies. If you have a very old or seriously ill loved one, you can also talk gently about aging and the eventual end of life. Preparing a child in this way can make the death less mysterious, and the discussion easier when the death occurs.

DON’T hide your own feelings and emotions. It’s okay for kids to see adults sad and grieving. It validates their own feelings and helps them understand the physical finality of death.

Of course, these are just a few general considerations for talking to a child about death. If you need additional resources or information, seek the help of a trained grief therapist, counselor, or clergy. Or you can reach out to us at Stillinger Family Funeral Home for appropriate helpful resources. Contact us at (317) 462-5536.

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