How to talk to your children about death
Losing a loved one is, for most of us, among the most heartbreaking and horrible times of our lives. Often, it’s hard to put one foot in front of the other, let alone look after others at the same time. But as any parent will know, having children is a 24/7 commitment, and one that requires a lot of questions to be answered at the best of times.
So how on earth do you explain death to children?
The issue of losing a loved one is all too familiar to the team at Ethicool, and in fact was a big part of what inspired us to start the business in the first place. Yet despite being writers and having a way with words, we found we had none when it came to telling our little ones that someone they cherished had died. How could we do it in a way that wouldn’t frighten them? Would they even understand what death was? All of these questions swirled around our heads, and as we could not find the answer to them, we decided to write a book. That book was Stuart French’s When Grandma Was the Moon, and it’s one of our most heartfelt and inspiring stories yet.
Yet we still had questions, as all parents surely do. So we recently sat down with clinical psychologist, Dr. Bec Jackson. Dr. Bec explained to us how and what children understand about death and how to talk to them about it.
Do children even understand what death is?
With toddlers and young children famous for not understanding why they can’t have ice cream for dinner, it’s hard to conceive of them understanding a topic as profound as death. Yet children are surprisingly intuitive and perceptive when it comes to these topics, says Dr. Bec. She says that even from a very early age, children will have come across the concept of death in some way, shape or form:
“Most young children are aware of death, even if they don’t understand it, as it’s a common theme in cartoons and in some books.”
Being familiar with death, though, doesn’t mean that children necessarily understand what it is. Dr. Bec says that when children are young, they understand death in quite a different way than adults:
“Children of preschool age or younger usually see death as temporary and reversible. This belief can be reinforced by seeing cartoon characters who die and come back to life again.”
The notion that death is only temporary was definitely experienced at Ethicool HQ. The mini Ethicools kept wanting to go back to the hospital long after their grandmother had passed away, as they expected that she would go back there.
As children grow up, says Dr. Bec, their understanding of death matures and they start to see it as adults see it. Yet still, it often still doesn’t feel real to them:
“Children between aged five and nine think about death in the same way adults do, but they often don’t quite believe it will happen to them or anyone they know.”
After about the age of nine or ten, children will eventually make the connection that everyone dies, and that they, too, will die one day. But this, cautions Dr. Bec, is one of the hardest understandings for them to accept.
When should you talk to your children about the death of a loved one?
Difficult conversations are never easy, and difficult conversations when you’re grieving can feel nearly impossible. So should you put off telling your children about a loss until some time in the future, when you’re feeling better?
No, says Dr. Bec. Putting off the conversation can, in fact, make it more difficult:
“If someone close to you has died, and you don’t tell your children but they find out by accident or from someone they aren’t close to, it can leave them confused and angry.”
Telling your children about a death straight away is never easy, but it’s important to take the time to prepare your response and if need be, individualise it for your children if they are at different ages and stages. Dr, Bec recommends:
“If you have multiple children, you may want to talk to them together, or you may want to talk to them individually, depending on their age and personality, and how close they were to the person who died.”
How to talk to your children about death
The ‘what to say about death’ was a heartbreaking challenge for us at Ethicool HQ. Should we say that grandma went to sleep? Or that we lost her? We couldn’t find the right explanation, no matter how hard we tried. Fortunately, according to Dr. Bec, the best explanation is actually the real one.
When talking to your children about death, Dr. Bec says that it’s important to use the correct terminology:
“Ultimately, your child needs your help to understand death. So it’s best to explain it as simply and truthfully as you can, for example: ‘I have some sad news, your Uncle John died this morning.’”
When explaining death to children, euphemisms such as ‘went to sleep’ are not only not helpful, they can be harmful. This is because children are extremely literal, but also for another important reason, explains Dr. Bec:
“Euphemisms interfere with the opportunity to develop healthy coping skills. Even using phrases such as ‘a loved one has passed away’ can be confusing and frightening for children.”
Given that young children may not yet understand death, a statement such ‘Uncle John died this morning’ can be difficult for them to comprehend. As such, you may need to go further and explain death, for example, explaining that Uncle John’s body has stopped working, and so he will no longer be able to provide cuddles.
If the idea of talking to your child about death this literally makes you feel uncomfortable - and understandably so - Dr. Bec recommends practicing with another adult before talking to your little one. Ultimately though, any discussion should be guided by the following five principles:
Five principles to follow when discussing death with your children
- It should be age and developmentally appropriate
- All questions should be answered concretely, honestly and clearly
- You should provide reassurance and support, and be available and empathic
- Always be guided by your child and their questions
- Show and name your own feelings.
How to answer your children’s questions about death
As any parent with young children knows, kids are the masters of needing to know more. So if you’re going to make a statement to the effect of ‘Someone you love has died,’ you can guarantee that it will be followed by a thousand questions.
Grieving can be a challenging time, so it’s best to prepare in advance for any questions you think your child might have. Ultimately, your little one may not yet have the vocabulary to express their feelings, so they need your help understanding and responding.
That being said, answering questions can be anything but simple. Dr. Bec recommends that you answer these common questions in the following way:
1. Why did they (the loved one) die?
This question may seem intrusive, but it is your child trying to understand the concept of death. Dr. Bec recommends answering it factually, but in a way that is at your child’s level. For example, instead of saying ‘Uncle John died of a heart attack’ you could say ‘Uncle John died as his heart was quite old and not working the way it should. The doctors tried to fix it, but it had a bad sickness that couldn’t be fixed.’
2. Will I die? Will you die?
When someone in your child’s life dies, they might start to make the connection between the event and it happening to them. If asked this, it’s important to reassure your child, and let them know that most people die when they’re old or sick. If the death in the family has happened to a young person or was an accident, provide reassurance that this is rare.
3. What happens when you die? Where do you go after you die?
This question can sound terrifyingly frank, but rest assured that your child isn’t usually looking for a medical explanation. When asked this question, answer it based on your family’s spiritual or religious beliefs. But if you aren’t religious, provide your child comfort in an answer such as ‘Even though that person isn’t here anymore, they will always live on in the hearts and minds of others.’
As naturally curious creatures, your child’s questions may not end there. They may also have completely unexpected questions, such as ‘Is Uncle John cold now?’ or even ‘Can Uncle John see me now?’ For these questions, always try to answer the best you can, but at the same time, don’t volunteer too much information as this can be overwhelming.
How should you act around your children when someone has died?
With childhood anxiety at an all-time high, as parents we often think it’s better to try to hide our less positive emotions in order to protect our little ones from even more stress. But this isn’t something that Dr. Bec necessarily recommends. She says that it is important to show your grief:
“Don’t ignore your own grief. It’s important to show your emotions authentically as it reassures children that feeling sad or upset is okay.”
When grieving, be sure to name your emotions, for example: ‘I’m crying today because Uncle John died and I feel sad that I won’t see him again.’
And while showing your emotions is important, try to do so in a healthy way. Children will often imitate the grieving behaviour of parents, so try not to react explosively or uncontrollably around them.
How to help your child remember a loved one
There’s no doubt about the fact that talking to your child about death can be really challenging. But as time goes on, it’s always nice to help your little one remember their loved one in special ways. Having something to focus on to remember someone can help provide comfort for both adults and children, says Dr. Bec:
“Focusing on something beautiful, for example, a star in the sky or a butterfly in a garden, and telling your child to think of Uncle John when he or she sees this object, can be a source of great comfort.”
From the perspective of us here at Ethicool HQ, losing a grandma has meant that our hearts remain broken. But through Ethicool, we hope she lives on in some way, shape or form. So in the words of the great novelist Chuck Palahnuik:
“We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever, the goal is to create something that will.”
Ethicool’s gorgeous new book, When Grandma Was the Moon, helps little ones remember a lost loved one. It is available now, exclusively online.