Michelle Martin, for Nemours Children’s Health System | Delawareonline
Almost every child will experience the death of a loved one at some point during their childhood. Whether it’s an immediate family member, a friend or a classmate, it’s important for parents to know how to talk to their kids about death.
The key is to be honest and use age-appropriate language to make the concept as easy as possible to grasp.
“Depending on your child’s age, you want to give them the right amount of information and be straightforward,” said Dr. Meghan Walls, a pediatric psychologist with Nemours Children’s Health System. “Some parents will say, ‘Grandma is in a better place,’ but that’s confusing to kids. What does that mean? Instead, they should say, ‘I have to tell you something. Grandma died last night.’ It’s better than saying she passed away. You want to be very clear.”
Most elementary-age children don’t understand what death means. Using direct terminology can help them comprehend death’s biological permanence.
“You want to explain to them that someone dies when they are very sick or hurt badly, and their heart stops beating,” Walls said. “You want to have that hard conversation to let them know that the person who died won’t wake up, and they won’t come back.”
Children might worry that other loved ones in their family will die too. Talking about it can assuage their fears.
“Kids don’t understand why it happens,” she said. “They will ask: If their grandma died, will their dad die too? Or if their aunt died, will their mom too? You want to tell them that most people live until they’re very old, but sometimes people do die earlier. It’s important to let your kids know you’re there for them and that you love them.”
Death can also cause a disruption in children’s everyday routine, which, to them, can feel chaotic. Explain who will take them to school or who will care for them. You want to be sure they feel safe while the adults are handling funeral arrangements and dealing with their own grief.
Funeral services can help adults find closure, but young children do not get the same psychological benefit, Walls said. Instead, she recommends leaving very young kids at home.
“Finding closure is not something they’re thinking about,” she said. “It’s OK if they come to the funeral, but it’s harder for young kids or kids not close to someone to attend funerals, so sit down and make a family decision about what you think is best. Some families also have cultural and religious traditions around death and families should be able to honor those.”
In situations of death by suicide, parents should not share any details with young children, but for middle schoolers and teens, it’s all right to address it.
“For that discussion, you can say, ‘Your uncle’s brain was not healthy, and he was feeling very sad, and he decided to take his own life,’” she said. “With small children, you don’t need to talk about this.”
When someone their own age dies, children often wonder if it will happen to them, too. In those cases, it’s best to explain to children that sometimes very bad accidents or illnesses occur, but most children do not experience these things.
If it’s a friend or classmate who dies, help establish a new normal for the child by starting conversations about the immediate future and suggesting that they celebrate their friend’s life in meaningful ways.
“Talk about what their classroom will look like without their friend at school,” Walls said. “Ask if there are things making them nervous about going to school. Also, encourage them to celebrate their classmate’s birthday or eat their favorite meal to remember them. It’s important they know they’re allowed to miss them and remember them.”
In some cases, children will experience grief over events such as mass shootings that they read about online or hear about from friends.
“It’s unfortunate we have to have this discussion, but as kids hear about mass shootings, it’s important to talk to them about it,” Walls said.
If your child brings up a mass shooting, especially one that happens at a school, ask them about it, and then be as honest and as brief as you can.
“If your child says that he heard from a fourth grader on his bus that people were getting shot, ask your child to tell you what they know,” she said. “Make sure the facts are correct, but don’t provide details. Acknowledge that something bad happened, and people did get hurt, but tell them that their school takes lots of steps to make sure people don’t get hurt.”
Have a conversation about how they’re feeling. Ask if they’re nervous or scared. When talking with teenagers, don’t go into all of the details, but have a frank discussion.
“Ask how you can help them,” Walls said. “But remind them that bad things happen in our world, and we can’t sit in our houses all day.”
Whether it’s the death of a loved one or someone your child hears about on TV, be sure to watch for signs of grief.
If your child isn’t functioning normally — not wanting to play with friends, eat, sleep or engage in activities — parents should seek professional advice.
“Some kids will need counseling and treatment to deal with and cope with these things,” Walls said. “It’s a tough topic, but it’s important to use the tools and language to help kids do the best they can when someone dies.”
Learn more ways that parents can talk with their children about death and dying at nemours.org.