Raising children often brings up topics that we as parents aren’t comfortable talking about. Topics ranging from embarrassing to difficult. From discussing how dad’s genes got into mom’s body when your elementary schooler is studying inherited genes to what happens to grandma’s body when she dies, parenting can be rough. But discussing the important things with your children is what sets them up for success. And while it’s often extremely emotional, it’s important to figure out how to talk to your children about death, preferably before you need to.
Children experience death in many ways throughout their adolescence. Some will see family members die, some will start with pets. As they age into teenage years, they may have friends or classmates who die. Laying the foundation on how to talk to your children about death early on will help everyone involved.
According to the Child Development Institute, plain, simple words are the best way to explain death to a child. And, depending on their ages, they still may not understand. Before the age of five, children are not going to understand the permanence of death. Between ages five and nine, they start to understand that death is final, though it remains impersonal. After nine, most children begin developing a further understanding of death and how it relates to themselves and those they love.
How to Talk to Your Children About Death
I consider myself pretty lucky to have experienced minimal loss as an adult. I’ve been to only a handful of funerals, some of those because I haven’t been able to travel home for them, but mostly because there haven’t been many. So, my children didn’t know much about them when my uncle died a few years ago, completely unexpectedly.
I remember my daughter overhearing my conversation with a friend, who I called right after I found out, so she could help me process. When my daughter asked me what happened, I explained, “Uncle died.” She said, “Are you sad?” I answered honestly that I was, and she nodded and skipped off to play.
When my husband came home from work a few hours later, he asked how the day was and before I could answer, my daughter who was about six at the time, said, “Uncle died, and Mom is sad.” It was very straightforward for her, but it was also very clear. She was able to understand my feelings and act accordingly. She may not have understood what happened next, but she knew enough.
Use Words They Know
Almost a year ago, a family friend lost their infant son. I struggled with how to tell my children about this. They knew this friend had a baby; my youngest son was friends with their older sons. It was something I was really struggling with as well. When I told them, I explained that the baby went down for a nap and never woke up. They didn’t understand. At 10 and 8, they needed strong, clear words. “Mom, did he die?” one of them asked. That’s when I realized they needed those specific words, just as we do as adults sometimes.
Read More: How to Help a Grieving Friend
The words we use are important every day. But when discussing hard topics like death, we need to be clear—with ourselves and with our children. Talking about death needs to leave them with no questions. We cannot say things that may give them mixed messages. Saying someone “went to sleep” may make them afraid they too will go to sleep and never wake up. Talking about how someone “passed away” may also confuse children. Death is an absolute and children like absolutes. They may not understand them, but they can process them easier.
Explain Your Feelings, and Welcome Theirs
When my grandmother died almost two years ago, I had a lot of feelings. She was old, she was ready, and we knew it was coming. We didn’t know exactly when, but when she left her assisted living and began hospice care we knew the days were numbered. At this point, my children knew what was going on because I couldn’t keep my feelings from them.
I was sad, but I was also so conflicted on what to do. Part of me wanted to rush up to see her one last time, to bring the kids so they could have one last memory. To be there for those who were sitting beside her. But the other side of me knew that my children needed me at home and that my grandmother would be furious if I disrupted all of them for her. I discussed my decisions with my husband several times a day during those few days and they were around for some of those discussions.
Read More: 6 Gifts to Give to a Friend Who is Grieving
My kids understood that I was sad, and when I took the time to explain why I was sad they were able to be more understanding and comforting. They knew that this was hard for me and they knew I struggled with what to do. Even my toddler knew that mom needed some extra hugs! Children like to know what we are feeling, especially if it is something they have felt before.
Be Prepared for Lots of Questions
After death comes questions. How you talk to your children about death may mean they have a lot of questions. Sometimes these questions come all at once and sometimes they’ll come much later down the road. Some of the questions kids ask will be hard to answer.
- What happens to their body?
- Is (loved one) in heaven?
- What is (spouse of loved one) going to do now?
Talking about death is hard for everyone, but as parents it can be even harder to discuss with our children. Often the death impacts us even more than our children, which makes it hard to manage our feelings while helping them work through their own feelings.
Patience, love, and lots of hugs won’t solve the problems, but they’ll help as you figure how to talk to your children about death.
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