Taking about death it’s never easy. We know it’s an inevitable part of life but talking about it can often be very painful.

It’s tricky to navigate this subject between adults, let alone knowing how to pitch it towards children. Therefore, this can be challenging.  But it doesn’t have to be this way. Children are more resilient than we give them credit for, though it pays to have a plan in place when you decide to tackle this subject.

Of course, your relationship with the child (as a parent/family friend/teacher) will colour the approach you take.

Note: Be mindful that cultural and religious approaches will vary, so boundaries should be respected in the way that the discussion is framed.

Here are some tips to help you talk about death with a child:

Boundaries 

What’s your relationship with the child? Are you a teacher or do you offer pastoral support? Are you a family friend?

Be aware that your role in their life has an effect on the type of response or support you could realistically offer. Don’t quiz or corner the child or try and ‘counsel’ them. Instead, give them space and security to be able to open up and share their thoughts with you if they wish. Depending on the cultural/religious perspectives of the family, the child may understand death (and potentially – the afterlife) in a way that is dissimilar or at odds with your own outlook. Providing a safe, calm and comfortable presence may be all they need at this moment in time. 

Preparation

Think about it as an open discussion. Consider the subject with the use of stories and storybooks and ask them to imagine where people go when they die. You can also raise the subject if it comes up in a movie like ‘Lion King’ or ‘Finding Nemo’. This is a gentle way of explaining it without the tragedy of personal loss. 

Normalising death and what it means helps to demystify it and provide the context and frame of reference needed for responding to it when it happens to them. Help them also understand that people have different views about where people go when they die.

What to do when a loved one dies or the family pet passes away?

Be direct but gentle. Explain what death is. Present simple facts to avoid the child’s imagination running rampant with speculation but avoid being vague. Try to avoid saying: ‘Grandpa/Snowy is in a better place’  or ‘Joey has gone away’ as this can be bewildering and scary for children. Instead, try to use clear words to minimise confusion. You could say in a loving way: ”Grandpa died. He’s not alive and we won’t be able to see him again or play with him again” but we will always be able to remember him and think about all the good times we shared together’.

Give them permission to be sad and allow them space to grieve. They may not always present grief in the same way that adults do. Remind them that ‘It’s ok to feel sad’. If they enjoyed a close relationship with this family member / friend / pet, mentioned to them that they were loved and cherished by this person. If they are younger, you can also read age-appropriate books on bereavement to your child as this can help to express and explore their feelings. 

You can find a list of books here: ‘Books for and about grieving children’ – Marie Curie

There is no right way to grieve. 

If your child seems uninterested or aloof, remember that It’s common for toddlers or younger children not to have any questions as young children don’t attach the same level of emotions to death & dying as adults. They may not yet be fully aware of the concept of death. If the death was sudden or unexpected, kids can sometimes resort to irrational thinking.  It might help to explain that no one could have stopped the death from happening so they know it’s not their fault.

They may also not attach meaningful significance to the situation until they are much older and able to process the situation. Without placing an unfair amount of burden on them, you could explain your own/family member grief by saying ‘Mummy is sad because (Grandma/Auntie Julie) has died and they were very special to me.’ 

Don’t hide your feelings.

Explain what you are feeling and why. Remember that it’s okay not to know everything and say ‘I don’t know’ to your kids. It’s OK to figure things out together. Your child will also be aware that it’s okay to not know all of the answers. It’s more important to be emotionally available and present and to respond in a caring way. Emphasize that they are not alone in their feelings and that you can support one other.

The healing process takes time but you can get through it together.

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