By: Jonathan Pishner
Helping a child deal with a loss can feel very complicated. Parents sometimes struggle with how to tell their child that a family member or friend has died. We often want to save children from pain, and so it is common for parents to feel lost in what they should say, and when, and how.
So strong is our urge to protect children, that we can often make this concept far more complicated than it actually is. Telling children about a loss and helping them deal with it is often very simple (notice I said simple, not easy).
I often encourage parents to stick to three things when having these difficult conversations.
Children can often become anxious and fearful in the face of death. If you practice these three steps, you can help them move through this process with as little fear and uncertainty as possible.
Remember how people try to save their children from pain? That instinct often causes them to skip this step. I strongly encourage you to not skip this, and to be honest.
I always get asked about this when there is an extra dimension to a death. Sometimes a loved one has committed suicide. Sometimes they have overdosed on drugs, or had a wreck while under the influence. My answer has always remained the same.
There are two very good, practical reasons for this. The first is that children are very good lie detectors. No matter how good a liar you think you are, your children will usually sense if you’re not being honest with them. And few things scare a child like a caregiver lying to them. So I always encourage parents to be honest about the circumstances.
The second reason is that children tend to find out. You should assume that children will find out what really happened. Your only choice is to decide if you want them to hear it from you first, or if you want them to find out from someone else later, and know that you lied to them.
You can, if necessary, tell your children that you won’t share everything now, and that some of it will have to be discussed when they are older. After all, there are some ideas that a child might not be ready for. But even then, I encourage you to avoid this answer if at all feasible. Laura, our children’s therapist, usually tells her clients this: If your children are asking the questions, they are ready to know the answers.
Note: There may be some exception to the rule about honesty. But if there is, I have never yet encountered it.
This one can be tough for adults. Our brains can make complex connections fairly easily.
Children’s brains do not.
That means that when you are talking to your children about death, you have to be very clear. Often, adults find it hard to speak in a way that is clear to a child’s mind.
Let’s use a hypothetical example. A child says to her mother, “Mommy, why did Grandma die?” The mother says, “It was just her time to go sweetheart.”
Because you’re an adult, you might not really notice how many steps were skipped. To the adult, the mother’s response makes sense.
But a child doesn’t make that connection in the same way. It is possible that the child would take “it was just her time to go”, and instead hear “People just randomly die for no reason.” They fill in this information because they have no base of experience, so they might not understand that a person can die of old age or it’s accompanying health problems.
Imagine the anxiety this would cause for a child, thinking that death could be staring over their shoulder at any moment.
To avoid your child making this kind of unfortunate leap, you have to guide them through the discussion step-by-step.
So let’s take the same example in steps:
The child asks why Grandma died.
- What was the reason? Age? Sickness? Accident?
- Explain how that makes a person die.
- Explain what death is, starting with the purely physical.
- If it applies, you can also explain your family’s spiritual beliefs about death. This is a hard thing to make clear, so make sure you can say it very clearly so your child understands.
Say what happened, then explain how this causes death. It’s a simple process. The hard part is not skipping steps.
One important thing about clarity: Some people have difficulty coming up with a clear explanation on demand. If that’s the case, it’s better to talk about it later, after you’ve had a little while to think about it. There’s no benefit to having a response immediately if it’s not a good response.
Whether a person is young or old, it is very common for emotions to be heightened in the face of a loss. And just like adults, children need someone to talk to about what they’re feeling.
It is important to connect with your child’s feelings. When you deny their feelings or yours, you make the process much more difficult for them. The most helpful thing you can do is let them have their emotions.
If they are sad, that’s ok. If they are angry, scared, even guilty, that’s ok. Talk with them about it. Let them know it’s normal to have strong feelings right now. They might need help controlling their behaviors while they have these emotions, so help them find ways to express it.
If you’re experiencing some of those emotions, let them know. It’s comforting to children to know that they are not alone in their pain. When you can help them put words to the experience, it seems much less scary to them.
Tying it all together
Remember our example of Grandma earlier? Let’s do the example again, and include honesty, clarity, and empathy.
Let’s assume Grandma died of old age. Mom can say, “Grandma died because she was so old. When people get older, their bodies don’t work as well, and eventually they stop working at all. When the body stops completely, that’s when somebody dies.”
This is short, but it is both honest and clear.
Usually, children will ask a lot of questions at this point. Common examples include: “Does that mean I will die one day?” “What happens after we die?” “Mommy, you’re not going to die are you?” Often, these questions come with a lot of emotions.
Let’s use the first one as an example. A parent can say, “Everybody dies eventually. Nobody’s body lasts forever.” If the child is upset or scared by that, help them talk about it. Let them know it’s ok to have feelings about death.
The first time you have to help your child deal with a death, you’re going to be answering a lot of these questions. When you do, remember to keep using honesty, clarity and empathy. If you do it well the first time, every time after will be much easier.
Hopefully this example gives you a good starting point. If you need more, it might be beneficial to read books on the subject or to seek the guidance of a counselor.