Our family recently experienced the death of three close family members or friends of the family. We would like to know what to say to our children. They all seem to be responding differently, but none of them are dealing with it well. Our children are 11 (boy), 8 (boy), and 3 (girl).
Death affects us all – children included – in diverse ways. Some people withdraw. Others crave closeness. Some cry. Others grieve through anger. Some say they’re “fine” and show no emotion. Instead they get on with life as if the death never occurred. It can be hard for adults and children alike.
Talking about death can be tricky, painful, and difficult. This is even more likely to be the case if you are also grieving.
There’s really no “right way” to have this conversation. What matters is that you are attuned to your children’s needs and can respond accordingly. Our children need to know that it’s ok to talk about it.
Here are a handful of ideas that may be useful – but each may also be wrong. Whether you should you use these ideas with each child depends on their age, their response to death, and their willingness to talk.
Be simple, clear and direct
The best way to deliver bad news is typically straight up. Sit the kids down and tell them, “I just got some really sad news. Nanna died last night.”
Euphemisms are generally unhelpful so avoid words like “passed” or “is sleeping” or that the deceased person has “gone away”. Children may become confused when we obscure death behind words that are ambiguous. In some a child can even become fearful that falling asleep might lead to death or that others will also leave them, so they begin to become anxious about separations. Simple, clear, direct statements will be most helpful.
Keeping it together
When you talk with your children about death, you may find it hard to contain your own emotions. This is normal and can be positive if we frame it for our children to understand. We might say, “I’m crying because I loved my mumma so much. I feel very sad because now I can’t visit her or ring her up anymore. And I miss her.” Let your child know that tears can be a way of being sad. While denial is a normal early stage of grief, our children will do better if they understand what has gone on clearly, and if they have parents who are capable of grieving in healthy ways.
Always remember that emotions are contagious. If your emotions are simply too big, it might be helpful if someone else can gently talk with the children about what has happened. If your children see you crying uncontrollably and so grief-stricken you cannot speak, they may “catch” you emotion and feel traumatised less by the death and more by your response to it. Stoicism is not required, but a level of composure will be helpful.
Have a ‘Lion King’ moment
When our children understand the whole ‘circle of life’ thing – that everyone and everything gets old and eventually dies – they can see that death is normal and natural. Help your child understand that most people live a very long time. Knowing this will not necessarily stop the grief (and nor should it) but it can help to contextualise the loss. By talking about aging and degeneration, children can see the process and begin to understand how life works. We might point out how grandpa couldn’t walk anymore because his muscles were old and tired. And that the same thing happened to his heart. It was worn out from beating for so many years, so it eventually stopped. Of course this can also lead to many new questions so be patient and upfront about what you do and do not understand.
In the instance where someone young dies, talk about how this is unusual and help your child know he or she is safe. Anxiety comes from unpredictability, while security is built upon a foundation of safety and certainty. Even when things are neither safe nor certain, our children do best when they believe things are predictable.
Developmental Stages: Who to tell and when?
Some children are emotional. They make a lot of noise, cry a lot, and generally fail to regulate their emotions. Others are less ‘out there’, and prefer quiet and introspection. Your children’s ages and personalities may impact whether you choose to tell them all of them at once or tell them one at a time in private.
Remember, though, that there are no right and wrong answers here. Alone means several quiet and potentially meaningful conversations which may be important. Together means a time for the family to sit with one another and hug, grieve, and talk in unity. You decide what will work best for your family. And you can always do both.
Children under the age of three may seem unperturbed by the death of a loved one. This is because they are used to people coming and going. They see death as impermanent and reversible. Dad goes to work in the morning and comes home at night. So when someone dies, they are sure they’ll see them next time they are near. Further, they’ll often watch movies where people come back to life. While they won’t be too upset, sometimes they may start showing irritation and sadness, crying for a person who is no longer available. Alternatively, they may be devastated when a pet dies but not seem concerned that a grandparent is dead. If they ask, keep explanations simple. Repetition is sometimes necessary. But long conversations may be less helpful than hugs and patience.
Children aged 5-9 are able to comprehend the finality of death somewhat better. They know that once someone or something has died, they won’t come back. Death may be more impactful for them.
For older children, there is typically an increased level of comprehension so our discussions can cover off information based on their desire to know.
Answer questions honestly
To the extent that you can explain what has happened, give your children answers based on their curiosity. You may be able to provide clear answers, such as “he died of a heart attack. This means that his heart stopped beating”. Or you may simply need to say ‘I don’t know.’
In the case of suicide, you may choose to share more or less information depending on the circumstances of the death, the ages of your children, and the wishes of the family. Sensitivity is particularly important in such cases for the wellbeing of children and others in the family.
It is likely that children will want to understand why their loved one has died, as well as how. They’ll often become worried that others who are close to them might also die (like you), or that they might die. They may ask questions about angels, the funeral, or seemingly unrelated issues. Be prepared for what you can be prepared for, and be patient and compassionate with those questions for which you cannot prepare.
Faith, Religion and Culture
During times like these, faith has been shown to be a protective factor for many people. If your family has a faith system that provides answers to big questions like “where do we go after this life?” then it is usually helpful to talk with your children about those beliefs.
If religion has not been a part of your life, or even if it has been in some cases, use of religious references may be confusing or even scary. Saying that “your brother is with God now” might be comforting to an older child or adult, but a young child may become afraid! What if God takes me or someone else I love? And talking about how happy a dead relative is now that she’s in heaven could also be confusing if everyone is sobbing about it. Children need context to comprehend what is going on at this sensitive time.
Some friends of mine recently lost a family member. In their Polynesian culture they keep the dead body in their home in the days leading up to the funeral. Family members come to the home, sleep in the same room as the deceased, and spend time with their dead loved one. This allows for many conversations with children, and an acceptance of the person’s death that many find helpful.
The most vital thing for our children is that we turn towards them with understanding and compassion. See their challenging emotions as an opportunity to connect. Name the emotions you are seeing in them. Talk things through. Work out positive ways forward.
Some children may prefer to have nothing to do with death, grief, or the funeral. The first stage of grief is denial. They may become angry. This is the second stage of grief. If a child is in denial or is angry and refuses to attend funeral services or be involved with saying goodbye, don’t force the issue.
Whether your child is, or is not, attending a funeral, we need to explain what will happen. They should know how people will be responding, whether it will be long and boring, or if it’s more of a celebration. They should be prepared for emotions to be on display. And they should also know who they’ll be with and how long it will take. (For young children, you might organise a babysitter or provide appropriate distractions).
I would typically always encourage a child’s attendance and, where appropriate, their participation, but let them decide.
Healing takes time for all of us. Doing things in remembrance of a loved one can help with this. It may be planting a tree, visiting a favourite place, singing a song, or some other activity that keeps the person’s memory alive. With the appropriate amount of time (sometimes a minute, sometimes a month or more), mentioning the person’s name and sharing favourite memories can also help with healing.
Most of all, our children need to know that we are there for them. They need to feel safe to cry or hit a pillow or talk without judgement. They need to be allowed to be happy too, and to move ahead with their lives.
In some cases, a person may be terminally ill and your child will have time to learn about the physical, emotional, mental, and psychological condition of their dying loved one. This can be helpful, but in some cases it may be traumatic. Give children choice about whether they spend time with a dying relative, but encourage interaction where appropriate so long as they feel safe and supported.
Unsatisfied grief stunts wellbeing, but by helping our children work through their grief in positive and productive ways, we can increase their resilience and help them move on with their lives.