How to talk to children about death

Life and death are the two certainties in this world and while we happily talk to our children about birth, the topic of where babies come from is one we all dreed one day but it is something which needs discussing, as is death because sweeping it under the carpet does no-one any good and it is something which can’t be avoided.

Discussing death with your children can be a real concern for us parents and many tend to avoid it. Death is, however, an inevitable part of life and it is our responsibility to ensure our kids are aware of it and know it’s okay to discuss it.

This is a topic, while never easy is one we have had a few times with the children as my Nan passed away earlier this year and we also lost their Nanny (Paul’s Mum a few years ago now).

If we allow children to talk to us about death, we can give them the needed information, prepare them for a crisis, and help them when they are upset. We can encourage their communication by showing attention and respect for what they have to say. We can also make it easier for them to talk to us if we are open, honest, and at ease with our own feelings.

You may actually be surprised at how aware children are already about death. They see dead insects, dead birds and animals on the road or a family pet may have died. Children read about death in their fairy tales, watch it in cartoons and even role-play death in school plays. Without realising it they already have some exposure to the concept.

When a loved one dies, children feel and show their grief in different ways and how children cope with the loss depends on many different things like:

  • Their age
  • How close they felt to the person who died
  • The support they receive

Here are some things parents can do to help a child who has lost a loved one:

When talking about death, use simple, clear and age-appropriate words.
To break the initial news that someone has died, approach your child in a caring way. Use words that are simple and direct. For example, “I have some sad news to tell you. Nanny died today.”

Give your child a moment to take in your words.

Listen and comfort.
Every child reacts differently to sad news. Some children cry, some ask questions, while others seem not to react at all. That’s OK. There is no guidebook on how they should or will react.
Stay with your child to offer reassurance and cuddles, answer any questions or just be there for them for a while.

Get them to put their emotions into words
Encourage children to say what they’re thinking and feeling in the days, weeks, and months following the loss. Talk about your own feelings and don’t be afraid to cry in front of them. Say things like, “I know you’re feeling very sad. I’m sad, too. We both loved Nanny so much”, “Nanny loved you very much”, “We will all miss her”.

Explain what happens next
If you need to go away to say with family to make the funeral arrangement, tell your children that’s what you are doing. Tell them when you will call them when you will be home again.

Talk about funerals, explain what happens and depending on their ages how they may be involved if they want to. They could read a poem, help you choose some photos for the order of service or even draw a picture to be placed with their loved one.

If they are too young to attend the actual funeral, they may like to join you after for the celebration of that person’s life.

Know when additional help is needed
Talk to your children’s school about their loss, they can help to keep an eye on them when you aren’t around, they can offer quiet time if they need it or can also talk to them about their feelings. Child counselling is also available if they should need it – the childbereavementuk.org website has some very useful advice for families.

We found a few books helpful when we were talking to our children about the loss of their Nanny and their Great Nanny. There are, of course, lots available from the library or online. These are the ones we liked: (affiliate links below)

Keep talking and give them time
Don’t avoid mentioning your loved ones around your children, if you don’t talk about them they may stop doing so in fear of upsetting you.

Remember grief is a process that happens over time, the pain will still be there and go away but over time it does get easier to deal with. Have ongoing conversations to see how your child is feeling. Healing doesn’t mean forgetting about the loved one. It means remembering the person with love and remembering the loving memories you once shared.

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