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. In a phone interview, 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.
How we told 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 few days between her ambulance ride and her death, we told Sam 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 absolute worst fear was that we would learn that her cancer had returned. Instead, a reality we never considered, shattered our lives. In the early morning hours, my sister collapsed and was instantly brain dead. It was 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. 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 excitedly and 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 was just 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?”
Sam is now four. Recently we were FaceTiming 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.
I have followed the simple honesty approach when it comes to talking with my nephew. I answer his questions as truthfully as I can in language that I hope he can understand. The only answer I haven’t figured out yet is what happened to her body — I worry about how the cremation process might scare him, so I have been very vague (and would welcome any suggestions about how others have talked about cremation with toddlers and young children).
Tips for talking to kids about death:
- Children benefit from clear, honest answers to their questions. You will likely have to answer these questions repeatedly, and even when you think they get it, you will have to explain it some more.
- It is imperative to avoid all euphemisms (e.g., Spot went to a farm or we put Spot to sleep, Daddy is in a better place, Grandma left us). Check out these great posts (part 1, part 2)by What’s Your Grief on how kids interpret common death euphemisms.
- If your child hasn’t grown up in a religious tradition, it may not the best time to introduce ideas of heaven, angels or God if those are not your beliefs. 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. They can go from crying to laughing and playing in a matter of moments. 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 death. This is a normal and expected emotion and kids should see that sadness is appropriate when someone has died. You do not need to put on your best face for your children, but you do need to be in control. If you are hysterical, be sure that your children are in someone else’s care so that you have the space to let these feelings out.
Like adults, with love and support, children can show resiliency — and 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).
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.
Of course, there are many situations where the whole truth may be just too big and complicated for a child. Death because of substance abuse disorder, mental illness, or violence can not only be difficult for a child to understand but also frightening. A caregiver can consult with a grief center about strategies for taking with children based on their personal situation. But, I believe it’s really important not to lie, but perhaps instead to just share part of the truth. It can be a very disturbing experience for a child to be told that afamily member died from an illness, and many years later they learn that the the death was actually because of violence.
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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.
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). Their 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.
Experience Camps (in GA, ME, MI, CA, PA)
Books for Children & Families
Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie | any loss, ages 5+
Something Very Sad Happened by Bonnie Zucker | any loss, but the illustrations show a woman with a child talking about the loss of someone else, ages 2–4
Michael Rosen’s Sad Book by Michael Rosen | any loss, ages 5+
Missing Mommy by Rebecca Cobb | mom loss, ages 5+
Saying Goodbye to Daddy by Judith Vigna | dad loss, ages 5+
Goodbye Mousie by Robie Harris | pet loss, ages 4–9
Samantha Jane’s Missing Smile by Julie Kaplow and Donna Pincus | dad loss, ages 5–9
The Goodbye Book by Todd Parr | any loss, 4–9
I Miss You by Pat Thomas | mom loss, 4–9
A Terrible Thing Happened by Sasha Mudlaff | for a child who has witnessed trauma, ages 4–8
Rudi’s Pond by Eve Bunting | friend loss, ages 4–8
The Scar by Charlotte Moundlic | mom loss, ages 5–9)
The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld | empathy, ages 4+
These Precious Little People by Frankie Brunker | a story on stillbirth, miscarriage, or infant loss for siblings, 3–8
These books will likely be available through your local library, and if not, you can request that the library purchase a copy. Here For You is partnered with Indiebound, and if you choose to purchase a book from the included link, we may earn a small commission on the sale.
An earlier version of this post originally appeared on Here For You.
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