If there’s two things most parents dread explaining to their children, it’s death and sex.
Thankfully, you can delay the latter until a later age.
Death, however, can happen at any time.
Whether it’s the death of a grandparent, neighbor or beloved pet, children are not emotionally equipped to deal with this necessary stage of life – and they certainly are not ready to deal with the grieving process that follows.
Here’s a guide on how to explain death to your child as well as support them through the process of grieving:
Explaining Death to Your Child
How you explain death to your child is entirely dependent on their age. What you tell a teenager may not be appropriate for a toddler, for instance.
Not that there’s anything wrong with being upfront and honest with smaller children – you just need to be sensitive about explaining it in a way they can understand.
If you overload their brain with too many details, they will become overwhelmed and confused.
Here are some tips for explaining death to your child:
Children thrive on expectation and function best when they know what is about to happen.
Sometimes you can’t predict death, though, so it’s best to prepare your child ahead of time.
That could mean explaining what will happen to an ailing family member or simply introducing them to the concept in gentle ways before your child experiences a death.
You can do this by pointing out death in nature, such as the unfortunate squirrel on the side of the road. You can even discuss fruit that has gone rotten.
Movies and books are also a great way to introduce your child to the concept of death.
Movies such as Finding Nemo or The Lion King display how death can affect a family. Pixar’s animated film Coco is a beautiful representation of death, afterlife and honoring memory.
Also, The Goodbye Book by Todd Parr is a simplistic explanation of death for smaller children.
Remember, the more you talk about death (appropriately) and what it means, the less scary and confusing it becomes for children.
You may be tempted to explain a death to your child in terms they understand, but a more direct approach is preferable.
When you try to relate death to something familiar, such as when your child’s toy broke, or using the phrase, “They are in a better place,” only makes the whole situation more confusing.
Instead, sit down with your child in a familiar and safe space with comforting items such as toys or stuffies.
Be direct when delivering the news. Explain that the person has died, which means that they’re body has stopped working and your child won’t be able to see them anymore.
Assure your child that it is not their fault and that it is okay for them to feel sad and angry.
Offer Love and Support
You may find that your toddler seems uninterested or unaffected by the news. Children don’t process death the same way we do, so they may seem unaffected.
Don’t try to push a reaction out of them. Simply deliver the news, lend your ear and see how they react.
Older children are likely to have an emotional response to the death of someone familiar.
If this is the case, assure them that you are there to listen and answer any questions they have.
Sometimes, however, physical comfort may be all they require until they can process the information.
How Does Bereavement Affect a Child?
Children, especially smaller ones, have yet to develop the capability to express complicated emotions.
Therefore, you are more likely to notice changes in their behavior more than anything else.
When it comes to children, their responses to grief and death can be similar depending on their age, level of comprehension and relationship with the person who died.
Here are some common behaviors your child may exhibit when experiencing grief:
- Alternating play and sadness
- Lack of response
- High-risk behavior
- Anger and frustration
Because children do not have the skills to communicate their grief, their behaviors will change.
This is not always a conscious choice on the part of the child – it is simply their mind’s way of trying to process the information.
How Do You Comfort a Grieving Child?
Loss is more intense for a child if they had a close relationship with the person who died. However, as mentioned above, this may not be apparent in their reactions.
The difference between explaining death and dealing with grief is that grief affects people after the fact.
While hearing the news of a death can be shocking and devastating, grief is the process of, well, processing that information.
So after you inform them of a death, your next job is to help them cope with the loss.
Since children cannot reflect on their emotions like adults, they may need to have many short conversations about the loss. You may find yourself repeating the same information and answering the same questions over and over.
While this may be painful or frustrating for you, remember that your child is struggling to make sense of the situation.
If you’re not sure how to help your child cope with grief, here are some tips:
Provide Affection and Reassurance
Your child may be beginning to question their own mortality, so they need to know that they are loved, cared for and, most importantly, safe.
Encourage Emotional Expression
Let your child know that they can talk to you about how they are feeling. If they can’t, suggest that they write or draw their emotions.
Share Your Grief
Be careful not to overwhelm your child but, by expressing your sadness, you’ll be encouraging them to do the same.
Accept Your Emotional Differences
Your child is not going to react to death the same way you do. Help them understand that it is normal to feel a wide range of emotions over a long period of time when dealing with grief.
Try to keep your daily routines as consistent as possible in order to help your child feel safe. This goes for setting limits on behaviors as well.
Saying “goodbye” to a loved one is an important part of the grieving process. Allow your child to choose how they do so, such as allowing them to attend a memorial service and, depending on their age, the funeral and burial.
Honoring the Memory of the Deceased
Perhaps one of the most important aspects of grieving is helping your child understand that the person who died lives in their memory.
Help your child honor those memories by creating scrapbooks that include photos as well as memorable stories.
Talk about the person who died often – focus on the good times and how that person made your child feel (and how they felt about your child).
You may find that down the road, as your child grows and develops, you may be dealing with the grieving process again. Never let this discourage you or your child from speaking fondly of the deceased.
This Too Will Pass
Death is, unfortunately, a necessary part of life. No matter your child’s age and intensity of their grief, the sadness will pass and the happy memories will remain.
However, if you are concerned about your child’s behavior during the process, do not hesitate to speak with a grief counselor, child psychologist or other mental health professional.
As much as you can do as a parent to support your child in their grief, there is nothing wrong with seeking help from a professional.