Talking to your children about death

Talking to your child about the death of someone close may be the hardest thing you have ever done or will ever do.  You may want to protect the child or feel that it is better if they do not know the truth, but children are quick to pick up when their own observations about important things are denied.  A conspiracy of silence will not spare them from pain – it will bewilder and frighten them.

Keep talking about the person who has died – offering information,  remembering memories and stories and sharing feelings – is one of the most important things you can do to help your child as they journey through grief.  One of their greatest fears is that they will forget the person who died.

When children ask difficult questions, there is no automatic need to give a long explanation.  It is often best to start by asking: “What do you think?” and then build on their answer.  They need to be told about death in simple terms that are appropriate for their age, so they can begin to grapple with the implications and will continue to trust you as someone they can turn to.

Young children may be confused by some of the everyday expressions that people use when someone dies, such as describing the person as ‘lost’, ‘gone’ or ‘passed away’. Saying that someone has ‘died’ or is ‘dead’ is honest, helps to avoid confusion and encourages acceptance.

It is harder for everyone when the death is sudden.  If there have been weeks or months in which to prepare the child for death, they will find it easier to accept, but that does not take away the pain.  Death is always a shock.

These suggestions may be helpful

  • There is no easy way of taking away the pain, although of course we wish we could.  Pain is the price we pay for having loved someone
  • Use straight forward words like dead and dying.  With young children, try to link with a know loss, such as the death of a pet (which may also cause more grief for the child than the parents expect).
  • Children under the age of about four often think that sleeping and death are the same.  Older children sometimes think this too.  The difference needs to be explained – for instance ‘When you are asleep your body works very well.’
  • Avoid phrases like ‘He has gone to sleep’, or ‘She had gone away’ or ‘We have lost Gran’.  These phrases can be confused with everyday occurrences, and may lead to fears about going to sleep, being abandoned or getting lost.
  • Make it clear to younger children that this means that the body of the person who has died is no longer working and they do not feel any pain.  Your child needs help to realise the body has not gone anywhere, other than perhaps to the cemetery or crematorium.  Go through this carefully as children may need to be clear about what happens to the body. In some cultures or families children may see the body after death. Indeed, it may be helpful to do so.
  • Going to the funeral and the cemetery may be very helpful.  Many children will choose to go to the funeral if they understand that it is a special time to say goodbye, remember the person and celebrate their life.  They to explain what they will see, in simple terms in advance.  For example, ‘The body is in a box and gets buried in a hole in the ground’, or ‘It goes into a fire and the ashes of the body are sprinkled on the ground.
  • Be prepared to tell the story and to answer the same questions, over and over again.  It is important for your child to understand and have the story straight in their mind but be prepared for them to be really confused at times.
  • Children can be anxious about expressing their own grief for fear of upsetting you further, especially if they think there is no one else to look after you.  You may find that involving another adult to comfort the child helps to share the load.
  • Your own grief can be shared with the child, but try not to off load it onto them.  This could give them the feeling that there is no space for their own grief.  Parents need to avoid robbing children of their own experiences – for instance by saying ‘I know how you feel’.  No one can know how another person really feels.
  • It is important for the child to continue to have opportunities to share their feelings about the person they have lost.  You can help by collecting photos, for instance, or make a story.  There is never a time that a dead person is ‘forgotten’. They stay in our minds, sometimes in the background, as long as we ourselves live.