Saturday, January 04, 2014

The Do's and Don'ts: Talking about Death with Your Child

It's never easy to deal with death. As adults, it overwhelms us. And it's even harder for children to move through.  Though we know it's an inevitable part of life, talking about death is something most of us aren't really good at because the subject is so painful.
I work with people in trauma, and grieving is a process that takes time. Part of the experience is finding ways to express what's happened, to make sense of what's happened, and finally, to accept what's happened. Here are some tips to help you talk about death with your child:
·        Tell the truth about what happened right away. The truth gives an explanation for your tears and pain. Being open and emotional can help your child learn how to mourn.

·        Be prepared for a variety of emotional responses. Realize that however you approach this subject, your child will be upset, and perhaps, even angry at you for how things were handled. Accept your child’s emotional reactions.  You will have time to address things again after they have had time to process the trauma.

·        Make sure to use the words dead or died. We don't like to use these words (preferring passed away, lost, or crossed over) but research shows that using them helps the grieving process.

·        Share information in doses. Gauge what your child can handle by giving information in small bits at a time. 

·        Be comfortable saying, "I don’t know." Having all the answers is never easy, especially during a time of such heartache.

·        Cry. Cry together. Cry often. It’s healthy and healing.

·        Allow your child to participate in rituals. Let your child pick clothing for your loved one, photos for the memorial, a song or spiritual reading. This will help them gain a sense of control of the traumatic loss.

·        Let your child find his or her own way. Allow your child to be silent about the death. It’s also natural for a child to feel lonely and isolate themselves at this time too. It’s also common for children to seem unaffected by the loss. There is no right way to grieve.

·        Prepare your child for what they will see in the funeral home. Tell children what they will see, who will be there, how people may be feeling and what they will be doing. For young children, be specific in your descriptions of what the surroundings will look like. For example, describe the casket and clothes and that the body will be lying still, not able to breathe or talk. Answer questions and encourage the child to go with you. Bring along someone to care for the child if you are distraught.

·        Prepare your child for the future without your loved one. Talk about how it will feel to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and special moments without your loved one. Ask your child to help plan how to move through the next calendar event.

·        Tend to the subject of death for days, weeks and months to come. Check in and be available for ongoing discussions since mourning is a process.

·        Remember to take care of yourself. As parents, we sometimes forget about taking care of ourselves during this time. Remember that children learn what they see, so be a role model for self-care at this critical time.


·        Don’t hide your grief from your child. Seeing you grieve will let child know that it is normal and healthy to cry and feel sad after death.

·        Don't be afraid to share memories of your loved one.  Sometimes parents feel afraid to talk about the person who has died, thinking it will cause pain to others. Research shows that the pain of re-living memories or sharing stories actually aids in healing and closure.

·        Don't be afraid to touch your child. It can often be more comforting than words.

·        Don't avoid talking to your child because you feel helpless or uncomfortable, or don't know what to say.  Sometimes a knowing look can be a powerful connection.

·        Don't change the subject when your child comes into the room. Doing so places a mark of taboo on the subject of death. Instead, adjust your wording and level of information when a child is present.

·        Don’t change your daily routine. Children need consistency. To the extent possible, keep to your usual daily routines at home and at work. Also, try to ensure that your child continues to take part in their usual activities and social events.

·        Don't think that death puts a ban on laughter. Laughter is a great healing tool. Being about to laugh about memories or moments with your loved one signals just how important their presence was in your life.

·        Don’t put a time limit on your child’s bereavement – or your own. Everyone grieves in their own way. Check in with your child to assess how things are going. If you think you need help, reach out to your child’s school, physician, or religious community. Professional help is also helpful if you need more support be it for you, or your child.


Kulber-Ross,  E. (1969).  On Death and Dying. New York: Scribner.