Talking to Kids About Death
The small patch of earth I call home has seen a lot of death in the past few weeks. My own life has been touched by the death of both family members and strangers.
I humbly hope that all this suffering gives birth to compassion and increases my ability to help others.
How to explain death to a child (thanks to Judi’s House)
When talking to children about death, the key points are to use concrete language, simple sentences, and know that children understand death differently at different developmental levels
"The pathway that carried blood to Mommy's brain got clogged then her body stopped working. We are going to miss her so much. This is a hard time and I want to make sure to answer all your questions. We're going to feel lots of big emotions, these emotions are so big because we love her so much. We might want to cry a lot, or hit things, or break things. That's all ok, all those emotions are ok. It was no one's fault that mommy died, her body just stopped working.”
“Nana got a sickness called cancer. Cancer is different from a cold or the flu. Lots of doctors and nurses helped Nana fight the cancer with medicine but the cancer spread and made her body stopped working. Now Nana’s body is dead. What questions do you have for me?”
After the talk:
Give kids something to do:
It's helpful to give kids things to DO with their grief - offer lots of options to write letters to the deceased, make art or cards for the helpers, draw pictures about what happened and how things are now.
Regularly check in while enjoying all the parts of life that aren’t related to tragedy:
This is a balance. You want to communicate that there is space for continued questions while also continuing to talk about all the others parts of life. What questions do your children have as they hear new information? What questions have they heard their friends ask?
Regression is normal.
Common grief reactions can look like misbehavior or acting younger. Keep children’s routines as consistent and predictable as possible. Give them control over the things they can control right now.
Be thoughtful about media consumption
Address misinformation, answer questions, turn off screens with younger kids.
Plan on having adult processing conversations when there is no chance children can overhear you.
With older kids talk to them about how they might be impacted of different levels of media exposure. How much information do they think is useful? What other things could you be doing during that time instead of hearing much of the same information over and over on the 24 hour news cycle? This can be easy segue into a conversation on ways they can do something active such as raise money or make cookies for first responders.
Model effective grief processing.
All emotions are ok, all questions are ok, we can always talk about the thing that happened or the person who is gone. Don’t try to fix the pain, your child’s or your own. Sadness and anger related to loss are normal. Just like a body will bruise before it heals, these emotions are a normal part of the process.
Children’s books I recommend
I also write more about talking to your child about tragedy here.