Grief, loss, and death are inevitable parts of life. Although it’s not something we want to plan for, let alone think about it, we must consider how we will support our children if there is a death in the family. This is because grief and loss aren’t something we can protect our children from. Your instinct might be to protect your child from the pain, but even though death and dying can be distressing topics, we need to plan what to say when someone passes to help our children process the loss and manage any big feelings that come up.
When to Talk to Your Children About Death in the Family
You must tell your child as soon as possible if there has been a death in the family or close friends or other important people in their lives. You do not want your child to learn by accident or from someone who isn’t you. This is because death and dying are very sensitive topics that you and your partner will want to handle, including supporting your child through any strong emotions they might have. Your family’s cultural or spiritual beliefs will also impact how you talk about death and, potentially, the afterlife.1,2 Children are perceptive and will notice if regular routines are out of whack or if their parents are upset, so letting them know as soon as practical is critical.
For families with children at different developmental stages, you might need to think about planning separate conversations or whether you tell them at the same time. This could depend on their temperament or age, as they will process the information you give them differently.2 Only you will know how to time or manage these conversations, as you know your children the best.
How to Explain Death in the Family to a Child
This can be confronting for many people, and many parents have asked how to explain death to a child and how much they should share or how transparent they should be. Research tells us that the more open and willing a parent is to talk about death, the better their child can understand that death is a part of life or what it means for someone to die.3
Your conversation will vary greatly depending on your child’s age, but from age 3 onward, children understand that death is permanent; however, as they grow older, they will realize that this is due to their bodies ceasing to function.3 Although the exact conversation you have will depend on your child’s age, you should be honest and use correct terms like “died,” “death,” etc., so there is no confusion.
Avoid Euphemisms to Prevent Confusion
We don’t want children (particularly young children going through a lot of growth and development of their imagination) to create their ideas of what death is or why a loved one is no longer around. So, try to avoid confusion by using euphemisms or saying things like, “They are going away” or “They are going to sleep for a long time.” Children need to understand that the absence isn’t temporary, and you don’t want to confuse death and dying with everyday things like going away on holiday, going to work, or even sleeping in a bed at night.3
Even if you hold beliefs about an afterlife, ensure that you start by sharing information about stopping their bodily functions and no longer being alive in this realm/place/time. Research indicates that children need to comprehend death first, which helps them develop a spiritual understanding later.3
Talking about grief, loss, and death openly helps children feel safe and supported because we can be open about death but also cope with losing someone we love.3 Young children only need to know that the absence is permanent and the person is not alive. Older children will appreciate and understand conversations focused on body systems ceasing — things like not breathing anymore or hearts not beating. And you might get more specific with teenagers about the name of the illness or diagnosis. It can also be essential to ask them if they understand what death means so you can see what they already know and then fill in the blanks, and you can correct any misunderstandings, too.
Supporting Your Child After a Death in the Family
A death in the family can be disruptive and upsetting, so be ready to help your child navigate the emotional upheaval. Here are five tips to help:
1. Let Them Know Their Feelings are Normal
Grief is love with nowhere to go. They have big feelings because they love that person. And normalize that all kinds of feelings are okay, too. Some kids might feel worried, sad, or angry, and you should also be prepared if, initially, they seem indifferent. They might grieve at some other point or not yet genuinely understand their loved one is gone for good.
2. Try to Keep Their Routines the Same
Predictability will help them feel safe and that certain parts of their life are still the same and in their control.
3. Get Ready for Questions
Reassure them often and check in if they have questions. The topic of death and dying generally isn’t over after one conversation. As they process things, you might find later down the track, as holidays come up or during key milestones or anniversaries, they have more questions. So, give them plenty of time and space to come to you with their queries.
4. Find Ways to Honor Your Loved One
Depending on your child’s age, you can involve them and ask their thoughts on what kind of activity feels like the best way to honor a loved one who has passed away. You could create a scrapbook with pictures, make a journal or written record of favorite memories, celebrate their birthday in a new way, etc.
5. Read a Book to Them
There are many children’s books about death. Younger children can find it hard to grasp what death means, so reading them a book can make something challenging to understand more simple, and the message is delivered in age-appropriate language. It also means you can introduce the topic without it feeling too forced. When they see other children in the book coping, it can also help them feel empowered that they, too, can cope.
Grief Counseling for Children
Despite your best efforts, your child may still struggle with a death in the family. This is normal, but you may worry about how they cope. Because grief can significantly impact your child’s well-being, you might want to think about developing a support network for them. So, let their school know or update any other services (child care, after-school activities, religious groups, etc.) about the death so they can support your child. You may also want to consider accessing specialized grief counseling — so start a conversation with your family doctor or pediatrician if you want to learn more.