Talking to young children about death

Death. It’s a tough topic for grown-ups, let alone kids. How should we talk about it with them?

“Mommy, I don’t want you to die,’’ said my little girl through tears.

And my heart hurt.

I am in perfectly good health (as far as I know). But my soon-to-be first-grader was trying to wrap her brain around the concept of death.

And I suddenly felt like an actress on stage under a hot spotlight who had forgotten her lines. I struggled with what to say. I knew I had to say something, that this was an important moment. I blinked, took a deep breath, and then smiled into her worried face. I snuggled her close, told her I loved her, and that I’m young and healthy and don’t plan on dying anytime soon.

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As I tucked her in and left her room that night, I felt I didn’t do enough to ease her mind. I wondered, Did I say the right thing? Should I have talked more?

Death. It’s a tough topic for grown-ups, let alone kids. When you become a parent, you expound upon every aspect of parenting with your family and friends until you’re blue in the face. How many long and drawn-out conversations have I had about breastfeeding, crying it out, and kindergarten curriculums?

But death? Hardly at all.

“I think our society in general does not want to talk about death and doesn’t want to deal with the messiness of grief,’’ said Emily Long, a licensed counselor and author of Sensitive Conversations: Talking with Kids About Death, Grief, and Violence. “So it is something that does get avoided a lot with kids — and in general.’’

But kids, the most curious of creatures, won’t let you avoid it for long.

What to say — and what NOT to say

My daughter’s questions about death aren’t limited to the quiet moments before sleep. No, her questions unravel midday, sometimes after a belly laugh, an ice cream cone, or a day at the beach. Her face will suddenly grow somber, and she’ll say, “I don’t want to die.’’ Or she’ll ask, “How do I get up to God when I die?’’

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Here we go, I think. And I’ve learned that I need to be ready.

But parents are rarely ready for this, experts say. Long and Dr. Melissa Cousino, from the Department of Psychiatry at Boston Children’s Hospital, offered these tips.

Don’t brush your child off. More often than not, talking with a parent about death reduces, rather than increases, childrens’ worries, said Cousino.

“It’s a natural parent tendency to want to protect your kids from these things,’’ said Cousino. “But they’re curious little kids, and they’ll get their answers from somewhere. They will fill in the blanks if we don’t.’’

Listen carefully to your child, and don’t interrupt.

“Because it’s a tough topic for many people to talk about, we’re quick to want to rescue them and jump in, but it’s important not to interrupt them,’’ said Cousino.

Validate their feelings. You can do this by repeating what they say. For example, “It sounds like you may be worrying if Mommy will die.’’

When describing death, do not speak abstractly. It’s important to remember that young kids do not have abstract thinking yet, said Cousino. So the best way to describe death is by using bodily functions. For example, “Grandpa died, his body stopped working, his heart stopped beating, he is no longer able to breathe or think or feel.’’

Do not say Grandpa fell asleep, passed away, moved on, went on vacation, or got sick.

“What I’ve seen cause more problems when talking about death with kids is when people try to use euphemisms,’’ said Long. “People love to use these sort of things, because they’re uncomfortable with it or don’t think their kids have the ability to understand.’’

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But euphemisms may unintentionally scare children, experts say. Children who take things literally may worry that if they go to sleep, go on vacation, or get sick, they will die too.

Be honest.

When my daughter asked me how she’ll get up to God when she dies, I faltered. As I tried to figure out what to say, she changed the subject, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

“It’s perfectly OK to say, ‘I don’t know, Mommy wonders that too,’’’ said Cousino. “It’s better to try to tell them you don’t know then try to put something together. I always like to preface it with, ‘That’s a great question. I don’t know the answer. It’s OK to ask Mommy a question that I don’t know the answer to.’’

And, finally, keep it simple.

“We freak out, because we think it has to be this big long philosophical thing, and they’re like, ‘I just want to know who is going to feed me,’’’ said Long.

“I’ve had kids say, ‘I don’t have a car, I don’t know how to drive,’’’ said Cousino. “They really think very concretely about it.’’

Assure your children that, should something happen to you, there are many loved ones who will take good care of them, she said.

If you’re worried you’ll traumatize kids by talking about death, don’t, said Long.

“Kids are actually really good with death and grief, if we stay out of their way,’’ said Long. “If we’re honest with them and let them have their emotional process, they will work through it way faster and better than most adults do.’’

Talking about death through play

I have an 8-year-old son who didn’t ask nearly as many questions as my daughter. We talked about death a few years back, and that was the end of it. Now that my daughter seems so preoccupied with the topic, I wonder if I should have filled in his silence on the matter. And, if so, how?

“It’s best not to push kids, even kids who have had someone they know die,’’ said Cousino. “We really want them to come to us, and ask their questions when they’re comfortable and ready to. But there’s things parents can do to encourage those conversations.’’

Three strategies parents can use to talk about death with kids is to use everyday events as a launching off point (the latest Disney movie, a dead plant), share their own feelings (“I’m feeling sad today because I’m thinking about Grandma), and incorporating talk about death into play.

People get upset that Disney movies show death, Long said, when it’s actually a “brilliant’’ move.

“It teaches kids, this is part of life,’’ she said.

When you leave the theater, ask your child something like, “What do you feel inside when you see that?’’ Long suggested.

Bringing up death during play can help kids feel comfortable enough to ask questions, said Cousino. Help matters by incorporating feelings into your game.

Cousino sets up a “feelings bowling game.’’ She’ll label the pins with different emotions. When kids knock a pin down they share that emotion. For example, knocking down the sad pin might prompt a child to say, “I feel sad because I miss Grandpa.’’

You can also bake cookies with your kids that have frosting faces. When the child eats the cookie with the happy face, she can share a happy thought. When she eats the cookie with the sad face, she can share a sad thought. And you can do the same.

Also, pay attention to how your child plays. Children lacking the words to describe their feelings may act them out instead. If your child pretends her doll has died, for example, it could be a good time to start a discussion, said Cousino.

Should kids go to funerals?

“Sometimes attending the service can be helpful for a kid in making sense of what death means,’’ said Cousino. “It can help them understand what it means to stop breathing and what it looks like.’’

That said, children shouldn’t be pushed to go to funerals or memorial services, said Cousino. She recommends giving children the option.

Explain to them what a funeral or wake is and what they will see, and ask them if they’d like to go, she suggested. Make a plan. Tell them they can stay in the back of the room with a favorite doll or toy if they prefer. And make sure they know they can always change their mind.

“Kids need to say goodbye as much as adults do,’’ said Long, who believes children should be included in services.

When Long’s uncle passed away a few years ago, she said all of his grandchildren, from toddlers to teenagers, were at his service.

“They all participated and brought flowers,’’ said Long. “It was really sweet. It was hard for adults to watch because the kids were grieving. But it was really sweet, and I think it was really helpful for the kids to have that.’’

Long said shielding children from these experiences isn’t doing them any favors.

“Having honest conversations about it, letting kids experience it, move through their emotional response to it, makes them more resilient through life,’’ said Long. “We all face losses of all kinds. When you lose a job, leave a home, lose friends, that has a very similar emotional process to death. So helping kids know how to deal with it in sort of the extreme — the death — helps them deal with it in the smaller life losses.’’

I don’t like the thought of my children dealing with loss of any kind. What parent does? But Speedy the goldfish won’t live forever. And neither will their favorite people. So it’s time to buck up, and meet this uncomfortable topic head on.

Next on the list of topics I’d love to obliterate from parenting: Where babies come from. Can I bake cookies that say, “Ask Dad’’ for that one?

Notable deaths of 2015

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