Hello brave parents and caregivers,
Laugh if you must, but I’m attached to our pet fish. The simplicity and grace with which they go about their existence brings me calm. In fact, while writing these articles and grappling with finding the right word or overcoming writer’s block, I look to our fish for inspiration. What would they do? Just be, relax, go with the flow. Okay, got it.
Well, I’m sad to share that two of our beloved fish recently died. Admittedly, for a little while, I felt a bit empty without them. We had a burial “ceremony” in the backyard; seconds later, my daughter laughed and sang as she played on her swing. I understand they’re fish, but is more reflecting in order? Like even for a minute?
I couldn’t help but wonder if her response was “normal” (read: oh my, have I failed to instill any sense of empathy at all?). It turns out, there is no normal when it comes to how children respond to death.
Parents and caregivers, whether you’ve lost a pet or a human loved one, it’s no picnic discussing death with children. Read on for tips about how to handle these challenging discussions.
Should We Talk to Children about Death?
The short answer is yes, we should. Children are astute observers who already know that death exists. They have seen dead insects or birds in the yard or are familiar with death from stories they’ve read or video games. By talking to our children about death, we can gain insight into their worries and provide education and comfort.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy. I’d venture to say that most adults aren’t that comfortable talking about death – it brings on feelings of fear and distress and most of us aren’t exactly experts on the subject. However, avoiding talking about it communicates to our children that it must be bad or that it will make us sad if they talk about it. This can cause undue worry and keep children from sharing their feelings.
How to Talk to Children about Death
As with most aspects of parenting, talking to children about death is a delicate balance: Encouraging communication while not deluging them with too much information or information they cannot understand.
5 General Tips
- Maintain an open and nonjudgmental stance that encourages communication.
- Stay attuned to your child; talk when she is ready.
- Listen carefully, accept and validate her feelings, whatever they may be.
- Be honest. Death is uncertain; if you don’t know how to answer a child’s question, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know the answer to that one”.
- Use simple, age-appropriate language that is brief and to the point. For younger children, it may be helpful to explain death in terms of the absence of functions (e.g., when plants die they do not grow anymore; when dogs die they do not bark anymore; when people die they do not eat or talk anymore).
Take Your Child’s Developmental Stage Into Account
It’s also important to consider where he is in his development. For instance, a preschool child may see death as reversible and temporary, similar to cartoon characters he has watched magically recover after being smashed to pieces.
Between 5 and 9 years of age, most children develop an understanding that death is final, though they may continue to believe they will figure out a way to escape it. During this stage, they associate death with a human-like images, like a skeleton. Some kids may have nightmares of these images.
From about 9 years of age through adolescence, kids begin to understand that death is irreversible and that they, too, will die. Adolescents may respond to a fear of death by taking untoward risks as a way to confront death and to feel as if they have “control” of their mortality. Others may begin to develop their own existential views about the meaning of life.
How to Handle a Child’s Response to Death
Each child is unique and has her own way of experiencing emotions; as a result, children can have variable and unexpected responses to death. For us parents, the key is to remain open and accepting of any and all reactions they may have.
Questions and Reactions
- Some children may ask questions immediately while others may stay quiet but come back later with questions. Because children learn through repetition, they often need to ask questions and hear answers again and again. Stay patient and check back to make sure they understood what you said.
- Children may react strongly to the death of their cat, but express less concern about the death of a grandparent. Or, they may appear completely unconcerned about death. Regardless, remain nonjudgmental; validate their feelings and avoid telling them how they should feel.
- Children may act out death through play rather than discussing it; for example, they may work through the emotions of a death by pretending their stuffed animal has died. Carefully listen and observe for clues about your child’s feelings.
- Children may not understand the emotions people have about death; for instance, if they ask why you’re crying, a helpful answer might be: “I am sad that Uncle Tim died. We all feel sad when someone we care about dies”.
- Children may experience fear about the separation aspect of death. If a young child asks, “When will you die?”, digging deeper and asking if she is worried that you will not be there to take care of her may be helpful. If so, reassure her: “I expect to be here for a long time to take care of you. If I do die, there are a lot of people who will take care of you, like Dad, Grandma, or Aunt Rose”.
- Children may not be mature enough to process a loss until they are adolescents. Therefore, they may express sadness at unexpected moments on and off over a long period of time. Remain patient and understanding.
- Anger is natural part of grieving. Children may openly express anger about the death of a loved one. Accept their feelings without reprimand.
- Children under stress may regress to an earlier stage of development, such as bed-wetting. Provide support and nurturance; regressions are typically temporary.
- Children may confuse death with sleep, especially when they hear phrases like “rest in peace”. This could lead to resisting going to bed. Avoid using sleep references when discussing death with a child.
- Children tend to generalize. Be specific when possible. For instance, if you tell a child that sickness is the cause of death, to prevent undue worry about any sickness, explain that it is usually very serious illnesses that result in death.
- Young children cannot grasp cause and effect and may believe they are responsible for a loved one’s death (i.e., believing that their grandparent died because they had yelled). Be mindful of this. Assure the child she is unconditionally loved. If appropriate, explain the circumstances of the death in simple terms.
Books to Help Children Understand Death
There are many books available to help parents navigate the topic of death with their children. One of my favorites, Seidler’s When Someone You Loved Has Died, uses simple rhyming language to help young children understand the death of a human loved one. It highlights the importance of accepting and validating emotions about death and reviews new experiences a child may have during this time, including attending a funeral and receiving visitors to his home.
Also, Karst’s The Invisible String is a beautiful book that offers comfort to children during times of separation or loss, reminding them they are always connected to those they love even when they cannot physically be together.
Brave parents and caregivers,
Death is a part of life and kids may have a lot of questions, emotions, and misperceptions about it. Get comfortable with your own feelings and perspectives on death; how you talk about it with your child may stick with him. Keep in mind that each child is an individual who may respond to death in a unique or unexpected way—that is okay.
Provide an open space for children to share their feelings. When they feel safe to express themselves, it gives you the best opportunity to support them as they work through experiencing a loss. You got this!
Until next time,
Talking to Children About Death. Patient Information Publications. National Institutes of Health, p 1-10.