This is a topic that most parents prefer to avoid talking about – death. It’s uncomfortable and can bring up emotions and feelings that you just don’t want to deal with. When we have kids, we want to protect them from harm and anything unpleasant and death is very unpleasant…it sucks. But the truth is that death is a reality. We all die eventually and nearly everyone experiences the unfortunate death of someone that they love.
So how do we talk about death to our children? These are some things to help you discuss death with your child.
Whether it’s a parent, friend, relative, child, or even someone in the public eye, a death can really affect us. Most of us are not taught how to deal with death. Of course, this can vary culture to culture as some cultures treat death differently than others. I wanted to share with you some of my own personal experience with this process. My mother had passed away years ago after a long battle with cancer. It was devastating for my entire extended family. My son was 3 years old at the time and my daughter was 1.
For my 1-year-old daughter, there wasn’t much to deal with. But for my 3-year-old son, he knew grandma well and had questions. But forget about knowing how I should communicate the death of their grandma to my kids, I didn’t know to deal with it for myself. I ended up going to grief counseling which was a game-changer. My therapist Jim, was absolutely instrumental in helping me through an extremely difficult time. I interviewed Jim on my podcast a few years ago. Today, I wanted to share with you what I learned about talking to my kids about death and hopefully, it can help you through the process:
#1) Be honest – Don’t hide it. Don’t sweep it under the rug. Don’t pretend it didn’t happen. Of course with all of these tips, there are going to be differences in how you deal with it based on the child’s age. We said that grandma died of cancer and is now in heaven. My son didn’t quite grasp it all but he did understand that he wasn’t going to see grandma anymore. She was now up in the sky. It was cute…one time a helium balloon accidentally left our hands and went into the sky, my son said: “don’t worry, grandma will catch it”. Be honest with your kids. There is a lot of value in the truth
#2) Be empathetic – Try to put yourself in your child’s shoes. Look at the death from their perspective. Their age is going to make a difference. Maybe it was a parent, a sibling, or a friend. Your child may have a completely different relationship to the person who died than you did. Try to look at it from their perspective.
#3) Use the word death – Sometimes we use different words thinking that it will make the situation easier to handle. We may use terms like passing away and as adults, we understand this. But for kids, “passing away” or “gone to sleep forever” can be confusing and even scary to kids thinking they could go to sleep and not wake up. Use the word death and it makes it very clear what you are talking about.
#4) Allow yourself to grieve – This was the single most important thing I learned. Giving myself permission to cry, be angry, and feel all of the emotions that I went through. Don’t judge yourself because you are crying. Don’t judge yourself on how you are dealing with it. Giving yourself permission to feel whatever you do. Everyone deals with it differently so allow yourself to grieve.
#5) Let your kids see your emotions – This was hard for me in the beginning because I felt I had to be strong around my kids and that meant I didn’t want them to see me cry. I didn’t want them to see me sad as I felt it would make them sad. But I learned that I needed to grieve…and if it happened to be around my children then ok. They saw that dad was sad and would sometimes ask questions. I would then say, yes, I am really sad about grandma’s death. We will all be ok but yes I am sad.” This actually made me human to my kids. I know sometimes it may seem like it in my videos, but I’m actually not a robot.
#6) Be inclusive on whatever is going on: If you are having a funeral, services, or family meetings, be sure to include your kids. This is not something just for adults or don’t think they shouldn’t be exposed to it. It’s good for them to experience these things. Then it doesn’t need to be scary or foreign to them.
#7) Let the child lead the discussion: You don’t have to dump a bunch of info or details on them but certainly let them know if they have questions to please ask. They will probably have questions about death. Let them lead the discussion and just be sure, to be honest with them as I said at the beginning of this video.
Everyone deals with death differently and there is no perfect way to deal with it. As it relates to our kids I hope these tips about talking to your children about death helped. If you are going through grief, attending a support group or going to grief counseling can really help.