Talking with Children about Death
One of the hardest pieces of my job, supporting families when someone is at the end of life, is when I get the question “What do I say to my children?” This seems to be one of the hardest aspects of death for me because we want to protect children and not let them feel the pain and grief associated with death. This is especially difficult now that my children are becoming so aware of their surroundings and ask a million questions! I can only imagine the weight of having to talk with children about the death of a family member.
In my time in hospitals I have found that Child Life Specialists are amazing. Child Life Specialist are part of the health care team and their main role is to help children understand their own illnesses, hospitalization or disability. When there is a death in the hospital, Child Life Specialists can also be called upon to help explain death to young children involved. They also offer resources to the family for grief counseling and tips for how to continue the conversation about grief after the family leaves the hospital. If you are ever in this circumstance, I highly recommend having your nurse get in touch with the Child Life Specialist at the hospital.
After you leave the hospital, or if you are in another setting where you need to talk about death and grief with a child, I’ll offer a few words of advice. Keep things clear, simple and age appropriate. Easier said than done, but focus on the simple facts. Someone was sick, the doctors did all they could and now this person has died. Using the words death and died are clear and simple. With kids, don’t use metaphors for death such as passed on, went peacefully in their sleep, crossed over, or “lost” their battle. These phrases add confusion and can frighten children when they go to sleep or loose at something. You also don’t have to divulge all of the details, especially if kids are not asking about the details. If the death is a result of suicide or addiction or if someone died on the operating room table, these details may not be appropriate for every child.
Another important thing to remember is that you don’t have to be strong and hide your feelings. In fact, showing your emotions gives children the freedom to show their emotions too. If they see no one crying then they will not feel the permission to cry. Telling a child to be strong takes it one step further and suggests that crying means they are weak. Someone has died, it is sad, and tears are a result of this sadness. It’s okay to cry. In your discussions with children about death be sure to acknowledge the range of emotions they may feel and that all of them are okay. A child may be mad that their dad has died and now can’t be there for Halloween or their birthday. Or they may be critical of situations that are funny and full of laughter because they miss their mom. “You can help children (and yourself) by letting them know that all of their thoughts and feelings are okay.”
Finally, let kids know that they can always come to you with further questions. Saying something as simple as “I’m here for you and I love you. If you have other questions or want to talk about his/her death, I’m always ready to talk.” And be prepared for kids to take you up on it. In my few experiences in talking with kids, they had questions just a few minutes after we “finished” talking about it. And don’t be shocked if you have to repeat the same thing several times. It’s no different that reminding kids 10 times to put on their shoes or brush their teeth, kids grow and thrive with repetition. I’m not saying you have to talk about death at every meal, but be prepared to tell the same story or explanation several times.
There are lots of great resources available for helping families talk about death and grief with kids. One of them is Sesame Street Greif https://sesamestreetincommunities.org/topics/grief/ This website is full of videos, parent tips and worksheets for kids to express themselves. Another great resources is the Dougy Center: The National Center for Grieving Children and Families. (www.dougy.org) This website offers tip sheets for talking with kids in a variety of age groups, as well as support groups and grief materials. It can be hard to help another family member or child walk through their grief when you are also grieving. Don’t be afraid to reach out for additional support from family counselors, school counselors or a pastor. When someone in a family dies, everyone is affected.
 The Dougy Center: The National Center for Grieving Children and Families. Tips for Supporting Grieving Children https://www.dougy.org/docs/TDC_Tips_for_Supporting_Grieving_Children_2018.pdf