Ten Tips for Talking to Children about Death

Part Two of our series. 

By Heather Hansen, RSW MSW BSW BA

Step one: Honour your own grief.

You are allowed to feel and it’s important that you do. In fact, your ability to engage with your own grief can enable you to be aware and responsive to your child’s needs.

Step two: Orientate yourself towards what your child needs.

While it is productive for children to see honest emotion, it can be terrifying for a child to see their parent collapse with grief. Be mindful of what you need, give yourself time and space for that, and then orientate yourself towards what your child needs: a gathered, albeit emotional, you.

Step three: Gather the facts.

All people, and especially kids, need context to help them understand and accept their loss. You may not choose to share these details, but having the information about when, where, and how the person died will ensure you’re ready if (and when) they ask.

Step four: Think timing.

While there may never a “good” time to talk about death, sooner is better than later. When a death is expected, advanced notification can support a child prepare more gradually. If the death has already occurred, inform them as soon as you are practically and emotionally able to do so. This will prevent them drawing their own conclusions based on what they perceive, observe, or overhear.

 Step five: Be clear and concise.

Age appropriate, simple, and direct communication is of critical importance when notifying children of a death. Avoid euphemisms like “gone to sleep” or gentle words like “passed”. These are inaccurate and can be confusing. Though children may not understand the meaning of the words, using language that reflects the truth, such as “dead” and “died”, can assist them create a vocabulary that they can use in future conversations. It can also help them differentiate between other goodbye words such as “gone bye-bye” and “all gone”.

Step six: Go slow.

The pace of the conversation should be slowed so to not overload and overwhelm them. Give space for them to hear, make sense of your words, and to ask questions. You may have to break up the conversation in to small pieces.

 Step seven: Be ready for the questions…

They might ask if you are joking. They might need you to confirm what you just said. They might ask you to repeat yourself. They might need you to tell them every day, for a while. They are curious, and they might want to know how the person died. They might ask questions that seem unrelated. They might ask questions that are surprising. They might ask questions that are difficult to answer, hurt your heart, or that seem almost rude. They might ask you questions that are really an attempt to have other questions answered (Am I safe? Are you going to die? Is this my fault?). You might think that they have understood and then, at the most random or inopportune time, they might have more questions.

To be ready for their questions does not mean you need to have all the answers. You may need to communicate that you are not sure, or that you need some time before you can answer that. This is perfectly understandable and fair. Readiness is not about knowing everything, it’s about anticipating that children will likely be full of questions, even if they don’t verbalize them.

Step eight: Give permission.

Children need to be provided with permission to feel or express themselves, as they often behave as they believe is expected of them. Some children might need permission to ask all the questions they have. Without permission they might mask their grief or silence their wonder. Children also need to hear that their reactions are normal and acceptable, whatever they might be.

 Step nine: Offer opportunities and choice.

Death can make people feel out of control. Being empowered by choice, therefore, is a productive counter to this. To talk about death some more, or not? To read a story about death, or not? To look at pictures of the deceased person, or not? To attend the funeral, or not? Let them teach you what they need.

Step ten: Caring for children, caring for yourself.

It is important to be tender with yourself, you who have been so brave and generous with your child. Self-care is not just an act of self-love but a way to renew yourself so you can continue to give attention to your child’s complex needs. Be kind to yourself, this is hard work.