By Kelly FradinApr 13, 2023
As a pediatrician and a parent myself, I often hear from families in times of need. A child’s beloved grandparent died after a struggle, a child’s father died in an accident, a child’s teacher or friend died unexpectedly, or even a beloved pet dies, and I get a panicked call.
As parents, we want to protect our children, but we also want to raise them to be prepared for life’s realities. While talking to kids about death is hard, it’s important. And we can explain death in a way that’s developmentally appropriate while minimizing the trauma and fear our children experience.
Before diving into a discussion, consider your own emotional state. Are you feeling ready to discuss the death? Do you have all the details yet? While you will never look forward to sharing upsetting news with your child, it’s important that you feel prepared.
On the other hand, this isn’t a talk you can put off forever. Even if they can’t explain it, a child knows when there has been a tragedy. Nonverbal communication, like body language, distractedness and tears, cannot be hidden from our observant children.
And kids have big imaginations. It’s better to tell them the truth than to let them imagine the worst.
Sometimes a grieving parent is not in a mindset to support a child’s needs. If you are in this difficult space, ask your community to step in and care for your child until you’re better able to do so. Prioritizing your own well-being in these moments is one of the best things a parent can do.
Many parents fear falling apart in front of their children and showing their grief. I think this fear is largely unfounded. We want our children to know that big feelings are okay. Crying in front of your child will not traumatize them.
In fact, allowing them to support you in your sadness can be helpful because it’s an opportunity for connection.
When you are ready to talk to your child, choose your words carefully and do not hesitate to say you’re not sure. We don’t want to use euphemisms for death like “sleeping” or “crossing a bridge” that might confuse a child.
We also want to reinforce a child’s sense of safety and anticipate that they may need reassurance that they are okay and the other people they care about are okay.
As we dive into considering death by age, also remember that children develop at their own pace and children’s cognitive and developmental stage may not match their chronologic age and that’s okay.
Children in this age bracket may not be able to fully understand death and loss. However, when someone in their orbit dies they still deserve to know about it, particularly if it disrupts their routine. Using short declarative statements “Nana is not coming because she died” and not going into too much detail would be advised.
When your children are young, it’s a great time to consider your values and beliefs and discuss them with your coparent. If you are religious or were raised with religious beliefs, decide if you’ll be sharing those with your child.
Little ones can learn about death through nature. Dead plants, dead bugs, or even roadkill can be relatively benign opportunities to expose children to the concept of death.
Many parents try to avoid talking about death when it’s not an immediate issue, but it’s a lot easier for a child to confront the death of a plant or even an animal than the loss of a loved one or another human being. Talking about these kinds of deaths is a good way to introduce the topic.
Children in this age group can generally understand death and may ask a lot of questions. Developmentally, it’s normal for them to fixate on new information they’ve learned.
This can translate to a child who never used to talk about death talking about death a lot, even up to 10 times a day. This age group will also draw pictures or play games about death as a way to process this new knowledge.
Parents often worry that an ongoing focus on death is a symptom of trauma—and it can be. But thinking about death a lot when it’s a new concept or someone you care about has died—even for weeks—is also a normal adjustment reaction.
Younger children can have magical thoughts about death, that maybe it will be reversible or that perhaps thoughts can cause death. Sometimes hearing their thoughts can help us target what information we share.
Many parents find their children’s questions about and focus on death difficult, especially when grieving themselves. As uncomfortable as it is, we want to teach our children that talking about death (or any hard thing) with their parent or supportive caregiver is welcome.
We may need to discourage talking about it in socially awkward situations such as telling strangers at the grocery store, but we do not want to teach them that death and anxiety about death are totally taboo. If we do, they may continue to have questions and worries about death and feel alone.
If a child this age isn’t experiencing an acute loss, it can still be a good idea to introduce the concept of loss, both to prepare a child for the inevitable experience or to build empathy and understanding.
Look at books like The Invisible String for kids under five. For older children, many movies and books have death involved in the storyline. This passive exposure is a safe way to start the conversation. Talking to your children about the deaths in books or movies may feel safer for them because of the distance, but still may trigger a lot of questions.
Children in this age group may be nearly adult-size on the outside, but in some ways, their budding maturity can make them more fragile. They are less likely to ask a lot of questions and more likely to internalize a lot of worries.
Parents of children this age who grieve should also understand that their child may not come to them for support. Tweens and teens often want to spare their parent and look to their peers instead.
If your child withdraws or doesn’t want to talk to you about the loss, the first question should be, “If you’re not talking to me about it are you talking to someone else?” Friends, parents of friends, teachers, coaches and school counselors can all be part of the team supporting your child’s grief.
Sometimes a heads up for these important people in your child’s community can help them to be more empathetic and receptive to supporting your child. It’s best to be clear about what you’re asking, “My child is grieving a loss, so I would appreciate it if you could check in with them.”
On the other hand, privacy matters to children too and taking a break from thinking about their loss can be restorative.
For some children, it may be better to say “My child is grieving a loss and has a lot of people speaking with them about it. Please don’t feel like you have to say something or check in, but I wanted to let you know in case they bring it up or if you see something that has you concerned in any way.”
Regardless of your child’s age, after you inform them of a loved one’s death, you want to leave them with feelings of safety and agency. What that means is acknowledging that while they may feel terrible, it’s okay to be sad and things will get better. There will be happy days and things to look forward to despite your tragedy.
To encourage a child’s feelings of control over the situation, sometimes a project like a memory box or a special card or photo for a loved one who may be hurting can be helpful.
For older children, advocacy can be healing in addition to potentially making positive change in the community, connecting with others who have lost loved ones for the same reason can make them feel less alone in their grief.
Undoubtedly every family is unique in how they consider loss. Our own upbringing, values, religion and culture will determine the words we choose. But death is universal and an inevitable part of life. When connecting with your child to teach them about death remember that there is no one perfect way to do it.
What’s important is to be authentic and connect with your child to talk about it in a way that makes sense to you. As with grieving adults, grieving children can have an unpredictable course, with holidays, songs, places, and memories often causing more sadness weeks or months after a death. Continued check-ins and connection can help a child feel safe and supported in these moments.
If you’re not acutely in a loss and still trying to teach a child about death, just as with other topics it’s often not just one conversation, but rather a series of small conversations where your children will learn and understand more.
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