How to Discuss Death with a Child

I was young when my grandmother died, but I remember clearly how I felt. I was sad, but mostly I was scared. I didn’t know what had happened, and – in my family – children were the last ones to know about details. That experience finally led me to counseling, which was a great move. You see, that counseling taught me how to talk about death with my own daughter.

Instead of hiding details, we have dealt with death together a few times during her life. Kids become aware of death well before a family member or friend dies. Pets, birds, insects and roadkill all present opportunities to talk about death and dying. Children hear about death on television and they read about it in books. Death is a part of life and children know it exists. Grieving isn’t confined to adults – children grieve during separations, divorces and even when they lose or break a favorite toy.

So it helps to talk about death well before a loved one dies. What we say or when we say it will depend upon the child’s age and experience. Also, it will depend upon our own experiences, beliefs and feelings as parents. But, it is good to talk about death before a loved one dies, as the feelings that occur during burial preparation and a funeral often color how adults portray facts about death to children.

I have learned that talking about death with my daughter is an ongoing process. She understood death differently as a child than she does now as a teen. But, each time she experienced grief, she felt it the same as any adult. She felt the loss physically, emotionally, spiritually and cognitively, and she needed love, guidance and care the same as any grieving adult.

The best way to talk about death with a child is to be straightforward and honest. Ask local librarians if they have materials on hand to help you with your explanations, as you want to keep it simple. Use an experience, such as the loss of a pet, to open dialogues with a child.

Help that child express his or her feelings about death. Leave openings for them to talk about their feelings or to ask questions. Don’t hide your own feelings, as your child probably knows you better than you know yourself. When you hide your feelings, that child may believe that you are lying about your thoughts as well. That’s not a great way to build trust.

Please don’t tell a child how to feel, as they will experience grief in his or her wn way. The last burden a child needs is to believe that their grief is “wrong” because it isn’t how you said it would be. Grief is personal, and it varies from person to person and from child to child.

Lastly, don’t presume that a child with ‘get over it.’ My experience led me to counseling almost two decades after my grandmother died. I don’t blame my parents for their lack of empathy, as they did what they felt was right at the time. But, I won’t repeat that same experience with my daughter. If your child needs help to wade through his or her grief, bring other loved ones in to help or find a support group or counseling to help provide comfort and care.

Although talking with a child about death isn’t the easiest thing in the world to accomplish, the experience may bring you both closer together. And, that’s what living is all about.

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