Talking with Children about Death and Dying

This is part II of a series in honor of Children’s Grief Awareness Day. Part I, on helping children grieve with remembrance books, may be found here

Death and grief are notoriously awkward subjects for most adults. We are caught up in what to say and how to say it. We never know whether to point out the elephant in the room or to talk around it. Our struggle to find the right thing to say often leads us to the wrong thing to say, or even worse, to say nothing. 

But it does not have to be like this with children. Author and counselor Bonnie Zucker reminded me that our conversations on death and dying with children don’t have to be awkward. Children do not bring all of the baggage to the conversation that adults do. They are not self-conscious, and while their questions can be blunt and difficult to answer, they say exactly what they're thinking without any social nuance. Kids are present, curious, and concerned, and it is our job to answer their questions with honesty. 

Illustration by Remy Charlip as found in The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown

How we talked to my nephew about his mom

My sister left for the hospital in the middle of the night after feeling sick for about 24 hours. In those first days we told him things like, “Mama is sick and she went to the hospital. The doctors are helping her. She loves you. If she’s feeling better, maybe we can visit her tomorrow.” Our worst fear was that we would learn that her cancer had returned. Instead, a reality we never considered was dumped before us. In the early morning hours, my sister collapsed and was instantly brain dead. It was completely unexpected and suddenly we had to tell Sam, “Mama died. This means that her body stopped breathing and it doesn’t work anymore. We won’t be able to see her again, but we love her and we will miss her. We feel so sad.” We were totally unprepared. 

Sam was not even two when his mom died, and his understanding of what was happening was limited. He started preschool just a month later, and when the mothers would come to pick up children, he would expectantly look at the door, thinking that his mom would come for him too. Within a few months, he was telling us his mommy died and that he missed mommy. At the time I thought that he understood that this meant he wouldn't see her, but I realize now that he might have just been repeating what we were telling him. By winter, he didn’t mention her very often, though he could recognize her by photos and enjoyed watching videos of her. He didn’t seem to have any memories of her, though if he heard us talking about her he’d get a thoughtful expression on his face and say, “Are you talking about my mommy?”

An excerpt from Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen

Sam is now three. The other day we were talking on FaceTime and I was telling him about some of the things that his mommy used to do with him (like sing the Sesame Street theme song and read the Very Hungry Caterpillar), and he asked me if his mommy was going to be getting better soon and if she’d be coming back. After I pulled the knife from my heart, I explained no, she died, which meant that she wasn’t going to be coming back. He said he was sad that he never met his mommy. I reminded him that he spent lots of time with Mommy, but he didn’t remember because he hasn't seen her since he was a baby. For an instant, I was startled by what he said but soon remembered that Sam is entering a new stage of understanding of what death means. He will need more explanations and reassurances as he processes the death of his mom, especially since he has recently gained more language to communicate his questions. These questions, and more, will keep coming as he gets older. 

Tips for talking to kids about death:

  • Children will benefit from clear, honest answers to their questions. You will likely have to answer these questions repeatedly.

  • It is imperative to avoid all euphemisms (e.g., grandma went to sleep, Spot went to a farm, Daddy is resting). 

  • If your child hasn’t grown up in a religious tradition, it is likely not the best time to introduce ideas of heaven, angels or God. Suddenly putting a loved one with God in heaven, or saying that they are joyful with the angels could be very confusing to a young child who has no schema for this type of explanation. 

  • Don’t judge their reactions. A child may not react how you expect them to (regardless of age), and this is ok. 

  • It is appropriate and healthy for a child to see you be sad about a death. These are expected emotions and it is kids should see that sadness is appropriate when someone has died. You do not need to put on your best face for your kids. But you do need to be in control. If you are hysterical, be sure that your children are in the care of others so that you have the space to let these feelings out. 
Children are resilient - they can grow to be caring, wonderful people despite major heartache and loss in their young lives (this Terrible, Thanks for Asking episode on the subject brought me immense comfort in the days after my sister died).

Illustration from Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen

I am not an expert on childhood grief beyond my own experiences, but there are many resources out there to help you. Most towns and cities have child and family grief centers, or support groups through hospitals or hospice centers. Here are other places to turn for support and answers to your questions:

Articles and Information

NIH - a multi-page handout on childhood grief. Covers topics from letting children visit the dying, attending funerals, and typical child responses to death in the family. 

A comprehensive packet from the American Academy of Pediatrics on how to support children in their grief. 

What’s Your Grief’s post on childhood grief and how age influences understanding

Modern Loss’ post on tantrums after loss

The Tasks of Childhood Grief by Crossroads Hospice, which includes signs that your child is struggling with their grief. 

Picture books about death and dying - these are the best books I’ve found (so far) for children

Centers

While you may not live local to these centers, they provide a number of wonderful resources online. 

Dougy Center (Portland, OR) hosts support groups for local families and lots of useful information on their website for children of all ages. Their tips sheets are a great place to start. The Dougy Center also produces a podcast. 

Our House Grief Support Center (Los Angeles, CA) is another large support center for grief (serves children and adults). There child support page offers a number of helpful articles, including how to talk to children about suicide and overdose. They also have a children’s book list. 

Judi’s House (Denver, CO) Infographics looking at childhood grief nationwide and other grief support resources.

Lighthouse for Grieving Children (Oakville, Ontario) Supportive literature, book recommendations, and consultations. 

Opportunities for connection

There are also camps dedicated to bereavement for families or children. Having worked as a volunteer at one of these camps, I can share that it’s an amazing opportunity for connection and support. 

Camps in Massachusetts

Experience Camps (in GA, ME, MI, CA, PA)

Camps Nationwide

 

 


Here For You offers a selection of Compassion Packages - gift boxes of thoughtfully curated home essentials to send to family and friends living through life’s toughest moments. We also write honestly about the grief experience and grief support.


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