How to have a meaningful conversation about death with a child

Monday, 10 August 2020

It can be a challenging time for a child to lose someone close to them.

Discussing death can be a real concern and many tend to avoid it, however, it is our responsibility to ensure our children are aware of it and know it is okay to talk about it, since death is an inevitable and natural part of life.

Children can feel and show their grief in different ways. If we allow them to talk to us about death, we can give them information to help them understand, prepare them for a crisis, and support them if they feel sad or upset. How a child copes with the loss depends on things like their age, how close they felt to the person who died, and the support they receive.

We can even be surprised at how aware some children already are about death. This happens because they see dead animals on the roads, or a family pet may have died. Depending of the age, some children read about death in their fairy tales, or may have heard about it at school.

The most important thing is to speak honestly and demonstrate that you are open to listen to their feelings. Here are some tips of how to have a meaningful conversation about death with your child:

Try to always use simple and clear words and approach the news in a caring way.

For example, “I have some sad news to tell you. Grandma died today.” Pause to give your child a moment to take in your words. It is clearer to say someone has died than to use euphemisms. Avoid explanations such as the person has ‘gone to sleep’ or ‘gone away’. They may make the child frightened to go to sleep or worry when you leave the house you might not come back.

After that, prepare yourself to listen and comfort.

Every child reacts differently to learning that a loved one has died. Some children cry. Some ask questions. Others seem not to react at all. That is also okay. Stay with your child to offer hugs or reassurance. Answer and encourage your child’s questions or just be together.

Encourage children to say what they are thinking and feeling.

A good way to manage is to talk about your own feelings: it helps children to be aware of and feel comfortable with theirs.

Explain about funerals and rituals.

Allow children to join in the funeral or memorial services. Give your child a role. Having a small, active role can help children cope with an unfamiliar and emotional situation such as a funeral or memorial service. For example, you might invite your child to read a poem, pick a song to be played, gather some photos to display, or make something. Let them decide if they want to take part, and how. They may even wish to make something such as a card or letter to place in the coffin to stay with their loved one forever.

Tell your child ahead of time what will happen.

For example, “Lots of people who loved Grandma will be there. We will sing, pray, and talk about Grandma’s life. People might cry and hug. People will say things like, ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ or, ‘My condolences.’ Those are polite and kind things to say to the family at a funeral. We can say, ‘Thank you,’ or, ‘Thanks for coming.’ You can stay near me and hold my hand if you want.”

Explain what happens after the service to show that people will feel better.

For example, “We will   all have something to eat together. People will laugh, talk, and hug some more. Focusing on the happy memories about Grandma and on the good feeling of being together helps people start to feel better.”

Tell your child what to expect.

If the death of a loved one means changes in your child’s life, head off any worries or fears by explaining what will happen. For example, “Aunt Charlotte will pick you up from school like Grandma used to.” Or, “I need to stay with Grandpa for a few days. That means you and Dad will be home taking care of each other. But I will talk to you every day, and I’ll be back on Sunday.”

Don’t avoid mentioning the person who died.

Recalling and sharing happy memories helps heal grief and activate positive feelings. Respond to emotions with comfort and reassurance. Notice if your child seems sad, worried, or upset in other ways. Ask about feelings and listen. Let your child know that it takes time to feel better after a loved one dies.

Provide the comfort your child needs, but don’t dwell too long on sad feelings.

After some time of talking and listening, shift to an activity or topic that helps your child feel a little better. Play, make art, cook, or go somewhere together.

Give your child time to heal from the loss.

Grief is a process that happens over time. Be sure to have ongoing conversations to see how your child is feeling and doing. Healing doesn’t mean forgetting about the loved one. It means remembering the person with love, and letting loving memories stir good feelings that support us as we go on to enjoy life.