By Heather Hansen, RSW MSW BSW BA
Talking to children about death is both a challenging and essential parental task. It’s difficult because death is often sensitive, complicated, and overwhelming. It’s important because how we come to learn about death has an impact on how we come to understand life.
Grief is normal, and so is your discomfort.
Grief is a powerful, painful, and normal reaction to death and loss. Feeling anxious about talking to your children about death can also be anticipated. The good news? As uncomfortable as it may be, talking to children about death can be a productive and healing act. Doing so actually encourages healthy bereavement for the whole family.
Do I have to?
Simply put, yes. Children are sensitive and perceptive. They feel deeply and they work hard to reconcile their observations and experiences. They lack context and knowledge, however, and their cognitive and emotional development is not yet complete. They need you. They need your mentorship, guidance, and deliberate support to help interpret, comprehend, and reconcile life events. This is not as complicated as it sounds, I promise. Caring, sensitive, and thoughtful conversations can reassure children that they are not alone, are safe, and that families can heal together. Your presence, companionship, and the conversations you share with them can impact how their grief is experienced and influence how they cope, and heal.
So, where does that leave me?
You, dear reader, are left with the responsibility of being your child’s grief mentor. Your child will learn how to grieve by your example, whether you avoid them or engage them in the process. Through your example, your child will learn what is “acceptable” to feel, say, and do. They will learn if they can be authentic in their grief or if they have to protect you from their fear and sadness. They will learn if they can or cannot have their questions answered. They will learn from whom they can receive comfort or support. You are in the center of this learning.
But what if they’re really young?
All children, regardless of their age, have the capacity to grieve. Similarly, children of all ages will need you to help make sense of the death and of their feelings.
If you are like most parents, you probably want specifics on how to talk to your child based on their age. The catch? A child’s capacity to process and understand death is really more complex than age alone. Comprehension is also related to a child’s individual level of maturation and lived experience. This said, a child’s grief journey is undeniably intertwined with their development. Certain concepts, such as finality and irreversibility for instance, can only be processed as a child’s cognitive capacity for reasoning allows.
Needless to say, wanting some clear parameters is certainly understandable! Check out this amazing guide that outlines developmental considerations and how to help a child based on their cognitive, emotional, behavioural, and support needs. It’s really awesome.
Do I give any specifics?
Providing information about how someone died can actually be useful to children as it reduces magical thinking. For example, a child might assume they caused a death if they recently wished for someone to go away or leave them alone forever. Informing the child of how a death occurred in a sensitive and age-appropriate fashion (no scary or graphic details) can go a long way to assure them that they are not responsible. Children often need to hear that the death, and the sadness around them, is not their fault.
Alright, so how do I do this?
There is no “right” way to talk to your children about death. The truth is, any attempt to speak with them about death is better than the alternative. You can trust yourself, you know more than you think. After all, you know your child. What you might not know is that they will accept your messy, imperfect, and clumsy attempt to talk to them. They don’t need anything polished. They just need you to be present, honest, tender, and patient.