People of all ages struggle to deal with death. However, if you’re trying to teach your children about death for the first time, it can be even more difficult for them to understand what death is and what it means. If you are talking to your children about death, whether it is of a loved one or a pet, here are some ideas to keep in mind:
Don’t Be Afraid to Talk About Death Before It Happens
Death is something that happens to everyone at some point, and since we all have to experience it, demystifying it for your kids will help them understand it when it happens to them. If a houseplant, bug, or flower dies, tell your children that that means they can never be alive again. Let them know that this happens to everyone and everything that lives eventually and that it is normal and permanent.
Younger children oftentimes struggle with understanding that death is permanent, so make sure to press on them that once something dies, it cannot be alive again. If you watch a show or movie that has a dead character come back, mention that that is only something that happens in the world of make-believe and not in the real world.
Use Clear Wording
If a loved one has died, you have to tell your children directly. Saying, “Today, grandpa died” will send a much clearer message than “Today, grandpa passed on.” Any phrasing like “they’re in a better place” or “they’re in heaven” may confuse your child’s view of the permanence of death. If they think that your dead loved one has just gone to another place, they won’t understand why they can’t just come back from that place. Emphasize that they are dead and that death is a permanent thing.
Give Them Room to Grieve
Grief is a very complicated process. There is no one way to grieve, and there is no one single process that every single person will go through. Because of this, you have to be ready to support your child through a range of emotions related to death. Some children will make up plays or games of make-believe that include the death of their loved one in order to help them understand death. You can correct small misconceptions they may have, but don’t try to stop them from having an outlet for their thought process. For example, if your child starts to play make-believe and has their grandma die from an evil villain attack, you can tell them that grandma died because she had a stroke, not because she was attacked.
Answer Questions Truthfully
When kids encounter death, they inevitably ask a lot of questions. Make sure that you answer any questions that they have truthfully, but don’t give any unnecessary information. If a loved one dies of Legionnaire’s disease, for example, you don’t need to tell them that only one in ten people who get the infection die from it, but you can tell them that they died of this specific disease.
Sometimes, children will ask the same questions over and over, but you don’t need to change your answer at all. They are processing the permanence of death, so you should be sure to give the same or very similar answers when they ask the same questions so that they understand that their loved one will not come back.
Know It’s Okay to Say “I Don’t Know”
If you don’t know the answer to a question that your child asks, you can say “I don’t know.” Death has a lot of uncertainty around it, so there will inevitably be questions your children ask that you can’t tell them the answer to purely because there isn’t one out there. By saying you don’t know, you’re showing your kids that it’s okay not to have the answers, and that’s an important lesson to learn.
Let Them Know You Are Upset Too
You don’t have to hide your emotions from your children. If you try to act like you are unbothered by the loved one’s death, your kids will think that that is how they are supposed to act as well. If your child finds you crying, you can explain that you miss your recently deceased loved one. Use clear language that they can understand, like saying “I’m crying because I miss Aunt Susie.” It will show your kids that it is okay for them to show and feel their emotions. Make sure that you aren’t relying on your children to make you feel better, though — they don’t have the emotional capacity to take care of you, and it isn’t their job to.
Communicate What Exactly Will Happen Now
If the recently deceased had an active role in your child’s life, let your child know what will happen instead. For example, if you always went to grandma’s house on Sundays for dinner, let your children know that now on Sundays you’ll be having dinner at home or at another family member’s house. Other than any changes regarding the dead loved one, make sure to keep your child’s schedule as consistent as possible.
If there will be a funeral, let your child know exactly what to expect. Don’t force your children to attend any events that they don’t want to, but encourage them to go to any memorial or funeral services so that they can have a sense of closure surrounding the death. For younger children, try to have a baby sitter or friend there to watch your child so that if something happens and they need to leave, you can still have time to properly grieve without worrying about tantrums or snack time.
If your family is unable to attend the service of a deceased loved one, you’re not alone. Nine out of ten funerals have some loved ones missing, so odds are you won’t be the only ones not attending. Try to hold your own personal memorial or service to share memories and talk about the life of the person who has died instead for some closure and further understanding of death.
Remembering a dead family member is important, and making sure that your child knows that none of you have forgotten your loved one is key to letting them grieve properly. If you have a funeral card from the service, you could get it laminated and display it as a sign that your family member is not forgotten even though they are dead. Make sure to use the proper kind of laminate, like 1.5 mil film for a card printed on heavy cardstock. You can also display pictures, drawings, or objects that belonged to your dead loved one to give a sign that your children are allowed to talk about your deceased loved one at any time.
Provide Comfort and Reassurance
Healing takes time, and your child may take even more time to heal if they are also coming to grips with the concept of death. Make sure that your children have an outlet for their emotions, whether that is through drawing, writing, music, or another creative outlet. Many different emotions will come up, like anger, sadness, and despair, and making sure that your child knows they can feel all of that is important.
Understanding and dealing with death can be hard, but you can help with your child’s experience and understanding of death through support and honesty.