Real Talk: How to Talk to Kids About Death (and what I tell my own son)
March 7, 2017
When you lose a spouse when you have children, you don’t only grieve your loss, but you also grieve the loss for your child. You grieve the birthdays that his dad will miss, the father-and-son breakfasts at school and the graduations that his dad will not attend. When Fernando passed away that’s how I felt. The hardest part for a while (and still is sometimes) was how to talk to Andy about death.
Andy knows that his papa is in heaven with God, but sometimes the follow-up questions are the hardest. I remember one time picking up Andy from pre-school and him telling me that his Papa had left him and that he wished he could get on a rocket ship and go to heaven. My heart literally dropped and I remember reaching for my sunglasses so Andy wouldn’t see the tears coming down my face. As I tried to compose myself to answer such hard questions, I reassured him that his Papa NEVER left him, that his Papa loved him more than anything in this world, but that God needed him. I told him that we still had a purpose here on earth and that’s why God still had us here, but that one day we will all be reunited again. Andy smiled at me and said “I love Papa!”
I talk to Andy about his dad all the time and although he was only two when Fernando passed away, it’s amazing to see that he still remembers things. He remembers his dad with so much love and knows that his Papa still watches over him from heaven. We also like to look through old photos together to keep his memory alive.
I recently had the chance to chat with Melody Boulton, a psychotherapist and author of the book ‘Amazing Adventures with Dev,’ which she wrote when her son passed away. Here are a few tips she shared on how to help children cope with grief and how to talk about death.
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The family must be a safe place for children to talk about their feelings. If adults are open, honest and loving, experiencing the loss of someone loved can be a chance for children to learn about both the joy and the pain that comes from caring deeply for other people.
Talking About Death to Children
Open honest discussions about death with children can be difficult. Yet adults who are able to confront, explore and learn from their own personal fears about death can help children when someone loved dies.
Encourage Questions About Death
Adults shouldn't worry about having all the answers. The answers aren't as important as the fact that they're responding to the questions in a way that shows they care. Maintain eye contact when talking about the death. What is communicated without words can be just as meaningful to children as the words said, in fact, more meaningful. Sitting quietly with a child and playing with toys, drawing, painting etc. can allow the child to play out some feelings. Children may repeat the same questions about the death again and again. It's natural. Repeating questions and getting answers helps them understand and adjust to the loss of someone loved. Usually, it's more helpful to ask exploring questions than to give quick answers. Let children know that their feelings are accepted. Although some of their behavior may seem inappropriate, adults need to understand children during this stressful time, not judge their behavior or criticize. Stay away from things like “He got a boo-boo” Because when the child gets a “boo-boo” or anyone else gets hurt the child might think that he or others he love will now go away and he won’t see them again. Speaking the truth and using words such as sickness, death, his body is gone but his heart is always with you, your love for him and his love for you will never die even though his body is not on this earth any more.
Listen to children, don't just talk to them Grief is complex. It will vary from child to child. Caring adults need to communicate to children that this feeling is not one to be ashamed of or something to hide. Instead, grief is a natural expression of love for the person who died.
Adult often have trouble facing death themselves below are some resources:
Timmy's Christmas Surprise by Karla Wheeler, is a gentle grief support book based on the true story of a real cat named Timmy and a family that was feeling sad one holiday season. It includes practical bereavement tips for the holidays and provides a springboard for discussions about death. (Ages 5-10)
Bear's Last Journey by Udo Weigelt
Old Bear is very sick. With his animal friends gathered around him, Bear tells them that that he must say good-bye, for he is going on a special journey. "But...but...you're not dying?" asks Rabbit, and Bear admits that he is. All the animals are saddened by the news, but the little fox is especially upset - hurt and angry and confused. He cannot imagine life without Bear. How Fox and the other forest animals deal with the loss of their friend is a moving story about death, grieving, and the solace to be found in memory. (Ages: 3-9)
When Dinosaurs Die by Laurene Brown
Online Support Groups for Kids
Sesame Street Workshop Elmo and friends video for children. How to talk about death and help grieving children.
Local children’s grief support group/organization