It is always difficult to talk about death. We feel even more uncomfortable and nervous talking with children about death since we want to protect their innocence and shield them from sadness. Despite feeling apprehensive when talking to children about this subject, we need to support children through difficult times in order to facilitate healing and growth.
- Let your children be your guide. If you don’t know what they know or understand about the death, ask open ended questions to see what they know and what questions they may have. Let your child’s questions and responses guide you as to how much information to provide. Give children ample opportunity over time to ask questions.
- Let your children know you are there for them and ready to listen
- Never try to “fix it” or justify the death.
- Be honest with your children. Give them clear and honest answers to their questions. Children want, need and deserve the truth and need to know they can trust you to tell them the truth. You may worry that you won’t know what to say or have all the answers. It is okay to say, “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand that either.”
- Listen to your children when they are not talking. Know that your children are listening to you when you are talking. Children will not always talk about their feelings directly, but you can learn a lot by paying attention to their play, what they are saying while playing, what they are drawing or writing. Children see, hear, feel and absorb what goes on around them. You may think your children are not listening, but they hear you when you are in conversation with others, or on the phone. Children have built in radar.
- Acknowledge your children’s feelings. Let children know that any feelings they may be having are okay and normal. Help your child label their feelings (such as “sad”, “angry”, “frustrated” or “overwhelmed”).
- Assure your child. Be sure to clarify any misconceptions or misinformation. Remind your child that people care about them and will help keep them safe.
- Model for your children. Show children how you appropriately express your emotions and take care of yourself during the grief process. It is okay to let your child see how you feel, but do not use your child as your support system. Rely on other adults or professionals for your emotional support.
- Look for changes in your child’s behavior. Changes may be a sign that they are feeling upset or unsettled. Be aware of changes in eating, sleeping, playing or the ability to concentrate. If your child’s usual behavior continues to be disrupted, contact a professional for support.
- There is comfort in keeping to normal routines and schedules. Stick to normal routines as much as possible. Continue with regular schedules of sleeping, eating, school, extracurricular activities and play time with friends. These routines give your child a sense of security.
- Not all children will understand death the same way
Young children – do not understand that death is permanent. Young children may ask the same questions again and again. This repetition helps them process and understand what has happened. Keep explanations short and simple and reassure them that they are cared for and safe. Young children will absorb and mimic your stress and feelings.
School-Age Children – are better able to understand what has happened and that death is permanent. They may have unrealistic reactions to death, may blame themselves for what has happened or worry that others will die. Provide honest facts and information about the death. Help them express themselves through art or writing and help them label their feelings such as “sad”, “stress”, “overwhelmed”.
Adolescents – may have the same understanding of death as adults have though perhaps not the experience with death and grief. Give adolescents time and space to work out their feelings. Allow them their privacy, but don’t let them withdraw too much. Involve them in decisions and conversations about the death. Let them know you are available if they need to talk. Help them figure out what they can do that is meaningful to them. They may want to channel them into a community project or some act of charity so they feel like they are taking a positive action. It is be helpful to invite children of all ages to write or draw their positive feelings and memories about the person who has died. Open-ended questions such as, “What are some of your favorite memories with this person?” or “What is the thing you are most grateful to have shared with this person?” are ways in which children can express themselves and build memories about the person who died.
Lisa Buksbaum is the CEO & Founder of Soaringwords, a non-profit charity devoted to helping millions of ill children and their families to heal. She started the organization after three experiences with death and illness in her family. To date it has helped 250,000 children and families to “Never give up!” Visit soaringwords.org
Rachel Gorman is the Director of Hospital Outreach and Wellness Education at Soaringwords. She is a certified Child Life Specialist with over 20 years experience working with children and families at leading hospitals. Rachel has taught at Bank Street Graduate School of Education.