“Death is not the opposite of life, but an innate part of it.”– Haruki Murakami
As Murakami indicates, death is an inevitable part of life. Whether it be the death of a loved one, the death of a pet, or hearing about tragedy in the news, it is almost impossible to avoid acknowledging death.
When a child has his or her first experience with death, there are often a lot of questions.
It can be challenging to know what to say or how much to share with a child about death. Below you will find some tips for discussing death with your child:
- Recognize the developmental level of the child – The brain of a four-year-old processes difficult news, such as death, differently than the brain of a fifteen-year-old. A four-year-old may ask a stream of questions whereas a fifteen-year-old may give you a blank stare and then walk away to process the information on their own.
- Provide honest information regarding what happened – Let your child know what happened to the person or animal who died. You do not have to share every detail especially if there are gruesome or traumatic aspects of the story, but we do want the child to have some knowledge as to what actually happened. Kids are perceptive and easily pick up on deception or if we are withholding information, so try and be as honest and upfront with your child as possible.
- Avoid using euphemisms – As parents, we often want to soften the blow of difficult news by using euphemisms such as “the dog was put to sleep” or “she passed away.” Rather than helping our children, this can actually harm them by confusing or scaring them. For example, a child may think that being put to sleep means the dog will eventually wake up or can instill fear in a child that he will not wake up if he goes to sleep. Using language such as “he died,” or “when we die, we do not come back to Earth,” can help a child understand the finality of death.
- Discuss your family’s religious or spiritual beliefs regarding death – Share your beliefs about death and afterlife with your kids. Teach them about any rituals or practices surrounding death. Talk with your kids about what the funeral or memorial service may be like.
- Allow the child space to ask questions and show emotions – Your child may have a lot of questions. Some of these questions will be immediately asked and other questions may pop up months after the person has died. Try to answer these questions as honestly and openly as possible. Your child may display a wide range of emotions as they go through the grieving process. Make room for these emotions and help the child process the emotions by naming them.
If you are seeking professional help for your child or teenager as they process grief, feel free to reach out to one of our counselors at Grow Counseling and we will happily connect you with a good fit for your child.
For more information on talking with kids about death, check out this article from NPR.
Written by: Mary Anne Sylvester