My nana died of cancer when I was 12. Her illness was kept a secret from my younger cousins and I until the very late stages, and none of us went to the funeral. On the brink of my teen years, I remember feeling angry that I wasn’t allowed to go and that the decision was made for me. I felt robbed of the chance to say goodbye to her. I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d seen her because I had no idea it would be my last.
I know my parents did what they thought was best for me, and now that I have kids myself, I can understand what a tough call it was to make.
Because death is scary — thinking about it, talking about it, preparing for it. Talking to children about death is definitely up there with things we wish we didn’t have to do but really can’t avoid. And you really, really shouldn’t try to avoid it. You might think you’re protecting your child by keeping the D word out of all conversation, but death is indisputable, and if you don’t tackle questions head-on, you might cause more harm than good.
“It’s important to talk to kids about death because they’re already exposed to it — in the media as well as in real life when a pet or person dies. It’s very confusing and upsetting for them,” psychiatrist Dr. Carole Lieberman tells SheKnows. “If you give children the impression death is something they shouldn’t talk about, they have to stuff all their feelings down, and it could turn into a more serious psychological problem later on.”
How does death affect kids?
The effect of death on kids depends on their age or emotional maturity. “Generally, kids under 7 can’t understand the concept of death,” says Lieberman. “They watch cartoons or play video games where characters are shot or killed in other ways and then pop up again.”
Older kids can make more sense of the permanency of death and will experience a wide range of emotions when a loved one dies, including confusion, curiosity, sadness and anger. “Teens may react with anger or act as if they don’t care that the loved one died,” says Lieberman. “But this is simply their psychological defense mechanism protecting them from feeling and showing their pain.”
Kicking off the conversation
Any conversation about death should be age-appropriate, never giving more explicit or detailed information than the child can process in a healthy way. “Let your child’s questions guide you as to how much information is needed or desired, taking care to truly listen to those questions and maintain kind, gentle eye contact during discussions,” clinical psychologist Dr. Carla Marie Manly tells SheKnows. To help them accept death as a natural part of life, Manly suggests referring to the cycle of life, which shows that all things (bugs, flowers, etc.) have a limited lifespan.
Manly recommends giving some thought to the setting and timing of your conversations. “Make sure your child isn’t hungry or tired before having this important discussion,” she says.
While it’s important not to hide your own genuine emotions from your child, it’s equally important to talk to your child when you’re in a calm, nonreactive state. “Expressing sadness and grief is OK, but do it in a way that is validating for your child,” psychotherapist Jodi Aman tells SheKnows. “If you show fear of death, this can have a lasting impact on them. They notice everything. If you are afraid of death, they think it is something to fear, which increases their anxiety and stress.”
What to say — & what not to say
Try to resist the temptation to tell your child that it “will be better soon” or that “it was meant to be this way.” “It’s always best to avoid trying to tell a child what not to feel,” licensed clinical social worker Monique B. Jones tells SheKnows.
Jones believes that any reference to faith in the immediate aftermath of a death is not helpful for children. “This may create resentment and anger by telling a child that they shouldn’t feel the way they feel about their loss,” she explains. “What you want to do is acknowledge and reaffirm the unavoidable thing that is happening and then reassure the child that it’s OK to feel the way they are feeling about it.”
Help your child stay connected to their loved one by sharing good memories. “Talk about how proud that person would be of them and how they changed their life,” says Aman, who also recommends doing something to honor the deceased, like planting a tree, giving the child a keepsake (such as a piece of jewelry or item of clothing they remember their loved one enjoying) or making a donation to a charity that had a special meaning for their loved one. “Anxiety comes with powerlessness, and doing something counters this. It is a positive way to channel the grief,” she says.
If you are discussing death because the child’s parent is terminally ill, help them understand they will not be left alone and that others will be there to provide good care, says Manly. Try to be honest with the child while ensuring that the level of information imparted is age-appropriate.
Manly recommends using open-ended questions — such as “How are you feeling right now?” and “What thoughts are you having?” — during your conversation to create a safe, encouraging space for your child to share their emotions. Stress the importance of reaching out for help when you are sad or feeling bad inside — no matter your age.
Finish the discussion by reassuring your child that you are available for any questions or thoughts that might arise at any time. In other words, the conversation isn’t over.
“It’s crucial that your child knows that you, as the adult and their caregiver, are ‘safe,’” says Manly. “Your child may fear that you will die soon and they will then be left alone. Let your child know that they are safe and loved. These are every child’s top needs.”
The funeral dilemma
There are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to kids attending funerals, says Lieberman. “When deciding whether your child should attend a funeral, keep in mind their age, psychological maturity, how close they were to the person who died, whether it will be an open or closed casket and what you have told them about death.”
Talking to kids about death is never going to be a straightforward or enjoyable experience. Resources that might help you guide your child through times of grief include The Children’s Room, Journey of Hope and The Compassionate Friends.