Talking to Kids About Death, Tragedy, and Loss
Oh, precious friend. If you’re reading this article, chances are you’re in a tough spot.
Whether grandpa just received a terminal diagnosis and is only given weeks to live or mommy was in a life-ending car accident, the thought of breaking the news to a child is enough to make anyone panic.
As a parenting educator, my number one goal is to equip parents with the tools they need to handle all of life’s parenting struggles. I even offer a FREE ONLINE CLASS to get parents started. As questions about grief have begun to circulate in our Positive Parenting Solutions community, I realized I needed some help answering these challenging questions.
With research and feedback from our Positive Parenting Solutions members (ranging from grief counselors to those who’ve personally experienced loss), I’ve compiled information to help relay and explain death and tragedy–as much as it ever can be explained–to our kids.
Looking for ways to help kids cope with grief? Here are 7 reliable strategies.
Concepts of Death by Age
Before we can even begin one of the hardest conversations of our lives, we need to know what kids are capable of understanding. Naturally, most of their comprehension regarding death and loss depends on their age and experience–and we need to explain things accordingly.
Preschool (Ages 2-5)
The finality of death is hard for anyone to accept. But for very young children, who have no understanding of mortality, they are simply unaware that death exists.
A 3-year-old, for example, might be unable to grasp that her deceased grandfather is “gone forever” as she’s been told. She may even ask when he’ll be returning.
Young children are also ego-centric by nature and may think they have caused or can control death or loss. This is concerning because they might feel guilty or responsible for what happened.
If an older sibling dies, a younger 4-year-old brother might think it was the mean look he gave him or the harsh words he said under his breath that caused his death.
Whether or not we introduce religion to young children, the concept of heaven, the soul, and an after-life can also be confusing. Most young children are very literal (particularly those diagnosed with autism), and abstract concepts–especially the idea of a person being in heaven and buried in the ground at the same time–don’t come easily to them.
Early Childhood (Ages 5-7)
Slightly older children still grapple with the finality of death. Like younger kids, they may also think they can influence or cause death with thoughts or actions. They may even believe they can avoid their own mortality.
Children this age might connect unrelated incidents to explain loss. If a 6-year-old watched The Nightmare Before Christmas the day her friend died, she may think–without being told otherwise–that the movie caused her friend’s death.
Middle Childhood Years (Ages 7-10)
Grief can grow in intensity for kids this age as they’re old enough to understand death as inescapable and irreversible. This means they may become fearful of their own death or the death of additional loved ones.
At the same time, though, children in this age group are becoming more capable of looking beyond themselves. They may worry about how their family members and loved ones are coping.
They also want to understand and make sense of death, and will likely ask more detailed, difficult questions.
Pre-Adolescents (Ages 10-12)
Pre-adolescents have learned enough about the human body and basic biology to grasp how a body physically dies; whether it’s from old age, injury, or disease. Coincidingly, though, their fear of death further increases.
Luckily, this age group can better understand that death and loss isn’t their fault, but may still need reminding and/or professional guidance. This is especially dependent on the situation and how the death or loss occurred.
Teenagers, in their final stretch towards adulthood, generally acknowledge death in its entirety. They are also ready to explore the philosophical meaning of life.
Also, with their growing freedom and privacy, teenagers may process their grief more independently than younger children.
Explaining the Unexplainable
Since every child’s ability to process death is different, how can we explain what we barely comprehend ourselves? Where can we possibly start?
No matter your child’s age, it’s important to begin by finding a safe and secure environment. While the explanation should come soon after a loved one’s passing–so that children don’t hear it from other, less personable sources (and so that they understand why you’re acting differently, or sad)–it can at least wait until they’re home from school and away from the public eye.
Next, it’s important to hold the child or offer some form of physical affection while delivering this news. If it’s our 4-year-old daughter, we can pull her up on our lap and hug her. If it’s our reclusive teenager, we can put a hand on his shoulder. This, beyond the comfort of a quiet and familiar physical environment, will help our kids feel safe and sheltered while hearing difficult information.
If the death or loss isn’t sudden, we can ask our child what she may already know. Maybe she was aware that auntie was sick and suffering, or maybe she wasn’t. (Learn when to tell kids about a terminal diagnosis–and why.)
Then, we can explain what our kids need to know.
While it might be hard to suppress our own strong emotions, it’s best to be calm, stay as reassuring as possible, and use simple, matter-of-fact explanations.
If we say “Auntie went to sleep forever,” our young daughter will be confused. Children know that after sleeping, we wake up. Plus, if we explain death in this way, our daughter may develop an unfortunate and irrational fear of sleep.
Instead, we can be more direct and say, “Auntie’s body got very sick and it stopped working. She can’t breathe, eat, walk, or feel anything anymore.”
Although it might seem too harsh, these facts, when presented sensitively and directly, are reasonable and acceptable explanations to children of all ages.
Be Open to Questions, but Don’t Pry
Once we’ve told our children what they need to know, we can transition to asking what they’d like to know. Even the youngest children will probably ask questions we can’t answer. It’s always ok to say, “I don’t know.”
Children may want to hear the same information repeatedly in order to accept what has happened. Or, they may not have any questions at all. It’s also possible their questions will come later–in a few days, months, or even years. And if kids don’t ask for details, details don’t need to be given. They’ll ask questions when they’re ready to hear them.
Part of asking our kids what they want to know can also be asking them who they want to know; that is, which of their friends or acquaintances they’d like to share the news with. We should encourage them to confide in anyone they’d like.
Kids With Special Needs
It’s important to always tell a child–even with severe intellectual differences–about the loss of a loved one. Despite their processing differences, children with special needs still have a close emotional bond with those around them and have the right and the need to learn of a loved one’s death.
For children with autism, the same methods of explanation at various ages apply.
The scripts below come from the Common Ground Grief Center and can provide a place to start for these difficult conversations.
(WHEN EXPLAINING SUICIDE)
“It is difficult to understand why someone would want to end his or her life on purpose. But what we know is that just like people can get sick in their bodies, such as pain in their stomach, people can also get sick in their brain. This can cause them to feel very sad and lonely for a long time.
When people feel like this, they sometimes think about hurting themselves or even killing themselves. That is what your mom did. This is called suicide. Do you have any questions?”
(WHEN EXPLAINING HOMICIDE)
“There are people in this world who might make a decision to hurt someone else on purpose. Someone killed your dad and he is no longer alive. It can be difficult to understand why someone would want to cause others harm like this. This is called homicide. Do you have any questions?”
For young children, using solely religious explanations may be ineffective because they need much more concrete, specific explanations about the physical realities of death. – Elyse C. Salek, MEd, and Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MS Ed, FAAP — HealthyChildren.org
If we tell our son that his dad is “now in a better place,” he may wonder why life on Earth is so terrible. If we mention that “God wanted Grandma to join him in heaven,” young kids will ponder why God thinks it’s more important that Grandma is with Him and not with family. And if we mention that Grandma will always be watching over them, it might make them feel uncomfortable when they’ve done something bad or embarrassing.
As children grow older and ask deeper, more detailed questions, we can gradually introduce the more complex aspects of our belief systems.
Don’t ever hesitate to seek additional outside resources and advice from grief counselors and specialists. And, please, remember that there are many helpful strategies you can use to relay the heartbreaking news to your children and move forward through grief, tragedy, and loss.
Our goal at Positive Parenting Solutions is to support parents on their parenting journey through all of its ups and downs. We have an incredible community of parents who’ve learned how to parent well through all of life’s struggles.
If you’d like to learn more about the positive parenting strategies we teach, I’d love for you to join me for a free class.
In the meantime, we are sending you all the virtual hugs and love we can muster during this incredibly difficult season.
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