How to talk to Kids about Dying and Death
Children and adolescents can respond to death and dying differently, and it is important to consider their developmental stages when having discussions about this topic. Dominant societal norms have informed our understanding of developmental stages and needs. The following are a few considerations to help guide you when having conversations about death and dying with children and adolescents.
- Be honest and concrete.
When it comes to describing death to children, it is important to be truthful and tell them that a loved on has died, and explain what the impacts of that are. Children often have a hard time understanding the permanence of death, and adults can at times complicate this understanding by using euphemisms. Adults often resort to using euphemisms because they have good intentions and want to “soften” the impact of death to the child, however these phrases send the wrong messages to kids. Sayings such as “passed away”, “went on a long journey”, “is on a long sleep” all send the wrong message to kids because these are not true. Telling a child when their pet dies, that “we put the dog to sleep”, can result in the child feeling scared to fall asleep because they will associate sleep with dying. Instead, it is advisable to be honest and perfectly clear. Say “when you die, your heart stops beating. Your body stops working. You don’t eat. You don’t sleep. You don’t breathe”. This gives more honest context for the child to help them begin to understand.
- Loss comes in many different shapes and forms.
Loss doesn’t always include death, and can be invisible at times. Our western cultural norms acknowledge death and grief with support from the nuclear family, extended family and larger social community. However, loss can include the loss of a friendship, loss of employment, loss of social status, loss of wishes, hopes and dreams. It becomes important as parents to be aware of how these losses impact our feelings, and if we can be validating, accepting and supportive of these losses we can foster increased resilience in our children.
- Take Things Slow.
Children understand and process death in tiny bits and pieces, over a period of time. Developmentally they are unable to process and internalize the concepts all at once, so do not expect them to do this. They will ask questions about the person who has died one day, and three days later ask again. This is how their brains are processing the loss. It’s like eating an apple, one tiny bit at a time. If you can remain calm and patient, and answer their questions when they ask or invite them to read a book about death (some titles will be suggested below) or tell a story about their loved one, this will help them maintain their relationship with their loved one and help them slowly understand that their relationship with this person has changed.
4. Create a circle of care around the child.
The death of a loved one can be unsettling for a child, and children are also very attuned to the disruption in their parents &/or caregivers lives. Children can develop fears of being alone or of being abandoned. It is comforting for children to be reassured by their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends and family to know that they are cared for. This can be verbalized to children, but it can also be shown by spending 1:1 time with them involved in age appropriate activities.
- It’s okay to show sadness and cry in front of your child.
Parents being able to role model and express emotions in times of sadness is powerful for children to witness. Children need to see their adults around them as human beings who feel all emotions, including sadness and grief. The tenderness and vulnerability you can express in front of your child, models to them that you can live with emotions and help prepare them for when they may feel overwhelmed by grief again.
- The funeral rule.
Give kids a choice when it comes to attending funerals, and tell them that you will accept whatever choice they choose. Also, if they choose to attend explain to them what will happen at the funeral, including if there will be an open casket, any religious ceremonies, graveside services. By being clear and direct with the child, you can help them visualize and gain a deeper understanding of death rituals and you can help them decide if they are ready to be present for that. If they choose to attend, find ways to have them be involved, and let them know that many strangers may speak to them, and that it is okay to visit with cousins and other family members that they may not see often. No child is too young to attend a funeral, but they may need different support from you depending on their age.
See the Child Grief resource for more information on grief and development.
- Keep hope alive.
Children need to be reassured that life will go on, and that you (and they) are going to be okay. This is a key component to helping children adjust to death and loss. Instilling hope for the future in your child builds resilience, and you can do this by helping them identify some of the things they are looking forward to in their future. (ie, list five things you are excited for in the next month(s)).
- Allow them to continue a relationship with their loved one.
Parents can help their child continue a relationship with their loved one through special acts, projects, traditions to honour the memory of the loved one who has passed away. Memory books, letters, stories, picture boards, videos, music, food and clothing can all help children still feel connected with their loved one who has passed away. Allowing them to talk to the person, saying their name regularly and continuing conversations about them all invite the child to remember and connect. Children fear “losing their connection” to their loved one, and this connection needs to be nurtured and fostered to maintain the bond between the child and loved one.
If you have questions or concerns always feel free to reach out to your clinician to talk about loss, dying, death and grief. These topics can be challenging to discuss, but your clinician provides a safe space for you to be open about your feelings, and to receive acknowledgment and support.
I have included some children’s resources to help parents introduce this conversation in their homes.
Sedney, M. A., Baker, J. E., & Gross, E. (1994). “The story” of a death: Therapeutic considerations with bereaved families. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 20(3), 287–296. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1752-0606.1994.tb00116.x
O’Toole, D. (2002). Storytelling with Bereaved Children. Helping Bereaved Children: A Handbook for Practitioners. https://doi.org/9781593851644, 408
Blog Post by Registered Social Worker and Clinical Counsellor, Tammy Wagner