There are few things in this world more difficult than the death of a loved one – and fewer things that are harder to talk about. Although the topic of death is a painful one, conversations with your kids about it don’t have to be.
Keep these useful dos and don’ts in mind as you broach this issue:
Preempt the difficult questions that will come by introducing your kids to the concept of death from an early stage. Simple observations based on nature (such as plants withering, or fruit spoiling) can help to highlight the process and permanence of death, an idea that kids naturally struggle with.
Initiate conversations if the subject arises in the course of your child’s storybook or the movies they watch. Ask questions to gauge how much they understand or what they want to know.
Break the news gently
When communicating the death of a loved one, choose a quiet and familiar setting. Help your child to feel reassured by keeping their favourite toy close by for comfort.
Explain the news in simple, but concrete terms
Try, as far as possible, to avoid using euphemisms. Saying that Grandma has “fallen asleep for a long time” or “taken a trip to heaven” may only confuse your child, or even result in unnatural fears about sleeping or travelling. Using the words “death” or “died” might seem a bit harsh, but often, these terms help to get the message across about the physical reality of death.
Let your child process their loss in their own way
Understand that every child reacts differently to loss. Whether your child cries, keeps silent, or asks a dozen follow-up questions, just listen and offer them comfort. Remember: there isn’t a right way to grieve.
Reassure them of your presence
Remember to check in with your kids about how they’re feeling as the days go by. Some children may start worrying that you or other people they love will die too. Others may feel, misguidedly, that the death was their fault, or that they could have prevented it.
Explain to your child that most people die only when they become very old or are very sick. If the death involved someone young, let your child know that this isn’t common and point out that most young people they know are alive and well. Also explain that the death wasn’t attributable to anything they did – or didn’t – do.
Focus your child’s attention on positive things in their lives to make them feel better (e.g. activities that they enjoy). Keep as close to their usual day-to-day schedule as possible to help ease their adjustment.
Prepare your child for what’s to come
If your child is attending the memorial or funeral service, speak to them beforehand about what to expect. Tell them who and what they will see, how people might be feeling and what the process will be like.
Try to seat your child next to someone familiar, or bring someone along who could help you watch your child if you need to grieve. For older kids, offer them the opportunity to play a role in the service if they’d like. If your child is not ready or willing to participate however, don’t force them.
Be afraid of grieving or expressing your emotions
Teach your kids that grieving is a necessary (and healing) process for both you and them. Don’t feel the need to bury your sorrow; instead, help your child to understand that it’s ok to cry or feel sad sometimes. If your child sees that you’re upset, just explain how you’re feeling and why – and let them comfort you with a reassuring cuddle.
Feel like you need to have all the answers
With death, we’re often faced with tough, unanswerable questions. “Why did this happen?” “What will the future be like?” etc. Realise however that it’s alright to say: “I don’t know“. Owning your vulnerability can help your child connect better with you when they see your willingness to be honest and open with them.
Rush the healing process
You shouldn’t expect things to bounce back to normal immediately. Don’t place a time limit on the grieving process and don’t lose patience if your child requires additional support or has further questions as their understanding of death deepens. Allow yourself and your family access to sources of professional help, if this is required.
Feel guilty about moving forward
Life inevitably moves on – and so will you and your family as you slowly adapt to your new normal. But don’t avoid mentioning your departed loved one either. Help your kids to keep their memory alive by sharing old photos or loving stories about them, as a way of honouring them even after they’re gone.