There’s never an easy way to break the news about the loss of a loved one, a family friend or even a beloved pet. When it’s time to talk to kids about death, the conversation can be even more challenging. But death is unavoidable, so having an honest and age-appropriate conversation with your child about loss is important.
It may be tempting to gloss over what’s happened, especially with smaller children. Parents may think, “They’re too young to understand anyway.” All children – even the littlest ones – will sense something is wrong and notice the people around them are upset and grieving. Here are some tips to make the discussion a little easier:
1. Don’t sugarcoat what has happened
This isn’t a cartoon where the character dies in one episode and is alive in the next one. It is important children understand death is permanent. Avoid using terms like “passing away” or saying the deceased has “gone to sleep,” which can be confusing for children and may even cause them extra worry and concern every time someone they love falls asleep.
2. Look for resources
There are a number of children’s books about death that you can use if you’re struggling to find the right words. They cover loss of family members and friends as well as pets. Those can be terrific ways to broach the subject and get the discussion started.
3. Rely on your faith
For many families, their spiritual faith is critical during times of loss. Talk about your beliefs with your child and help them see how it can be a source of comfort during this challenging time.
4. Focus on the memories
Turn the conservation from loss and sadness to a celebration of your loved one. If the child is old enough, spend time reminiscing about special times together, funny stories and touching moments. You may even want to create a memory box filled with photos and mementos. You child can keep it in her room and when she’s filling sad, open it up and think on those happy times.
5. Write it out
For older children, encourage them to write their feelings. They can use a journal or write a letter to their deceased family member or friend. They may be reluctant to express their feelings verbally, so urge them to write instead.
6. Let them grieve
Just as adults will cry or feel anger over the loss of a loved one, we should expect children will go through the same grieving process. Especially if they’ve lost a parent, sibling or other very close relative or friend, their grief will be profound. Give them the time and space to feel their feelings. Grief counseling or a grief support group may very well be appropriate for children in the same way it is for adults.
Going through the death of a loved one stings – whether you’re 7 years old or 70. Be upfront and honest with your child about what’s happened and then help them find age-appropriate ways to process their grief and express their feelings.