“I want to see the napping lady,” said my two-year-old son. My grandmother had been in a nursing home for all of his short life, and he did not recognize her body in the casket. When he asked what she was doing, the first thing that came to my mind was “napping”. We walked away from the casket and sat down with my family.
“Daddy sad?” he asked me.
“Yes, daddy is sad,” I said. I wasn’t sure what else to say. Luckily, he was easily distracted with a cookie.
Dealing with death is tough at any age. But parents have the extra difficulty of figuring out what and how to tell their children about death. I found out firsthand how hard this can be. It helps to be prepared, so I searched the literature and summarized some helpful strategies below.
The age of the child makes the biggest difference in how to talk about death. There are four main concepts of death, and children are able to understand more of these concepts as they grow older.
Younger children do not completely understand death. But they still know when something is wrong. They have a knack for knowing when their parents are upset or sad. If they do not get an explanation from their parents, they may think they did something wrong. Mommy must be really upset with me. She keeps crying. When someone has died, a family needs to pull together and support each other. This means talking to each other, and using the right words. Here is a chart showing the way children understand death at different ages.
Regardless of your child’s age, talking about death is important. Even if they do not really know what is happening at a funeral, they know something is wrong. You don’t have to have all the right answers. Just being open with your kids can provide comfort and reassurance. Here are some tips on how to talk about death with kids of different ages.
Infants and Toddlers – Even young children can sense something is wrong when someone has died. It is important to keep routines intact if possible. Also, avoid separation from your young children. This tells your child that something is wrong, but it is not his fault and everything will be okay. You can use concrete and simple terms to explain what is wrong. “Grandma is not here anymore, and we all miss her very much.”
Preschoolers – These children recognize death, but they see death as something temporary. It is important to use simple, clear language with them. Avoid saying, “She has gone to sleep” or “passed away”. Young children will not understand these phrases, and they may create even more fear. If Grandma went to sleep and never came back, maybe I should not go to sleep… Instead, you could say: “Grandma has died. That means her body stopped working. We won’t be able to see her anymore, and we will all miss her very much.” Keep it simple – children can only process so much information. But you can also remind your child that we will always have our memories. For religious families, using religious explanations can be meaningful and helpful. However, it can be confusing to children if religion is only discussed in a family when a death occurs.
School Age – In this age group, listening can be more helpful than talking. These children change so quickly that it can be difficult to know exactly how much they understand. Start by simply asking… You can help to clear up a lot and confusion and misunderstanding. Answer their questions honestly. And remember, grieving is a process. Give your school-aged children many opportunities to talk about their feelings and fears.
Teens – Teenage children have an adult’s understanding of death, but not an adult’s ability to communicate or cope. After a death, they have many thoughts and emotions that they may not know how to deal with. They may start to fear their own death, or question the “fairness” of life and death. Many teens will respond to these feelings by acting out or undertaking risky behaviors. No matter how hard you try, your teen may not want to talk about it. Patience is extremely important (even more than usual), but bad behavior should not be accepted. Here is an article from HealthyChildren.org with helpful tips on how teens can express their grief in healthier ways.
Death is hard, especially for children who are still trying to figure out the world. When helping your children to cope with death, be patient and be prepared.