We’ve all heard the old saying by Benjamin Franklin, “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Unlike taxes, however, death is not a topic that always can be put off until our children are older. Of course, we all hope to delay the conversation as long as possible, but, because it cannot be avoided altogether, here are some tips to help you feel ready when the time comes.Communicate about death in an honest, frank, and age-appropriate manner. With young children, it is best to speak in literal terms, be specific, and avoid euphemisms. Resist the urge to be vague. For example, you might say, “Aunt Susan was very sick. Not the kind of sick like the kind you and I sometimes get. Aunt Susan was sick inside of her bones. After a while, her body stopped working, and she died.” Simply saying that “Aunt Susan got sick and went away” or “Aunt Susan is sleeping peacefully” could lead your child to believe that death results from minor illnesses, going to bed, or leaving the house. Similarly, if your child asks what it means to be dead, offer concrete examples: “When a person dies, his body stops working. He cannot walk, eat, sit, or talk, and he cannot feel any pain.”
Be prepared to answer a lot of questions—sometimes, the same ones over and over. The permanence of death is hard to grasp as an adult. Imagine how difficult it must be for a child! Just be as patient as you can and keep providing answers, even if you feel like a broken record. Your child will think of new questions as his understanding, awareness, and cognitive skills grow.
Help put words to emotions. Just like my sweet and cautious son often cannot tell if he is hurt or scared when he falls, many children (and adults, too, if we’re being honest) cannot distinguish between feelings of sadness, anger, fear, and abandonment following the death of a loved one. When your child understands what he is feeling, he is better equipped to process and cope with his emotions.
Don’t be afraid of sadness—yours or theirs. When adults stifle their own grief or tell their children, “don’t be sad,” it sends the message that feeling and expressing sadness is inappropriate. Of course, we don’t want our children to be unhappy, but we need to teach them that experiencing emotion is both healthy and a necessary part of the grieving process.
Be careful when discussing the afterlife. Beliefs about the afterlife are incredibly personal, and there is no right or wrong answer. Whatever you plan to tell your children, however, tread carefully to avoid confusion. Saying, “Susan was so good that God wanted her in heaven” could make your child afraid that good behavior results in death. Saying, “Susan is happy now that she is at rest” could lead to anger or hurt feelings that Susan would feel happy while everyone else feels sad. Instead, try something like, “We’re so sad that Susan is gone, and we will miss her very much, but it’s comforting to know she’s not sick and hurting anymore.” If your child then follows up with a specific question about where people go when they die, tell them what you believe. Or say that you don’t know—and can’t know—but describe different beliefs that people hold. You never know; one of those beliefs might resonate with your child. The important thing is to provide comfort without promoting confusion.
As much as possible, stay on schedule. When a family member dies, a disruption of everyone’s schedule is to be expected. Whether you’re planning a funeral, traveling, hosting extended family members, or simply grieving, the days following a significant loss are anything but “typical.” As soon as you can, though, resume your child’s normal schedule. Knowing what to expect throughout the day will give your child a renewed sense of security and normalcy.
Celebrate the person who died. Tell happy stories, draw pictures, light candles—whatever you can do to keep the memory of your child’s loved one alive.Read books. Books have helped prepare my son for his sister’s birth, his job as ring bearer, and potty training. When the time comes to prepare him for death and loss, I will look to the bookshelf again. The following books for young children come highly recommended: Badger’s Parting Gifts, The Invisible String, Waterbugs & Dragonflies, and Freddie the Leaf. For more situation-specific recommendations, consult this list.
Be kind to yourself. If you don’t answer your child’s questions perfectly every time, that’s okay. Do the best you can, and take care of yourself.
Need other resources? The WARM Place, located in central Fort Worth, is a non-profit agency that provides ongoing peer support services for children (ages three to 18), the adults who bring them, and young adults (ages 19-25) who have been affected by the death of someone close to them. The WARM Place offers its peer support services free of charge. Your child also might benefit from grief therapy or religious counseling. The WARM Place will provide counselor recommendations upon request.
Has your family experienced loss? What did you do to help your children through it?