When a loved one passes away, the sudden nature of death can be a difficult topic to discuss with children. As parents cope with shock and grief, the added burden of helping children to understand what has happened and why can feel exhausting. We recognise it’s important to help children understand what death means, but the journey to coping, understanding, and accepting death is a personal one. Your family’s religious beliefs, experiences and familial stories all combine to support you and your children. Below are a few tips to help at this time.
Use clear, honest language. Euphemisms like “passed away” or “gone to sleep,” may be confusing for your children, so if you use them, be prepared to explain what they mean. If possible, use direct language, such as “died” or “dead.” Children may not understand what being dead is, and so may have questions about the physical nature as well as spiritual.
Young children may not fully understand the concept of death, so it’s important to keep explanations simple and concrete. For example, you might say, “Grandma’s body stopped working, so she died and won’t be able to talk, eat, or play anymore.” Older children may be able to handle more complex explanations, such as discussing the biological processes of death.
Address any misconceptions:
Children may have misconceptions about death, such as thinking that it’s like sleeping or that it only happens to old people. Take the time to address any misconceptions your child may have and correct them with accurate information. You may also mention keywords they might not know, such as “deceased,” “wake”, or “funeral.” This will help them understand more aspects about the way your family handles the process of losing a loved one.
Make sure your children understand that they are loved, and that it’s normal and acceptable to be upset, angry, or emotional. Many people tell their children the deceased person has “gone to Heaven,” but this phrase should be used with an explanation that this has occurred after a person died. Preschool children often believe Heaven is a physical place, and have no context to understand the euphemism.
Answer questions honestly:
Many questions your children might have will surprise you. This is a key chance for your family to grow closer by recognising the emotional toll a loss can have. Most children will have no experience with any aspect of death, so be prepared to discuss:
- What is a funeral?
- How does everyone know about the funeral?
- What happens at a funeral?
- What is a wake?
- Can a friend/pet/toy come?
- Why did they die?
- What does death mean?
Encourage your child to ask questions. It’s okay if you don’t know the answer to a question – you can say something like, “I’m not sure, but we can look it up together.”
Provide comfort and reassurance:
A period of mourning is normal and an acceptable part of coping with Death. Your child will need guidance on the feelings they may have (or not have!) and lots of support. Let them know that it’s okay to feel sad or angry and that it’s important to talk about their feelings. Remind them that they are loved and that you will always be there to support them.
Religion is an important part of the discussion about death, and may be the first time your child has wondered what happens afterwards. Remain clear about the physical side even as you discuss what happens next. Most religions will have resources, stories and support you can use to help your family in this difficult time.
Talking to children about death is never easy, but it’s an important part of helping them understand the world around them. Use clear, honest language, address misconceptions, and provide comfort and reassurance to help your child navigate the complex emotions that come with death.
If you’d like to hear more, check out our podcast, Death Defined (https://deathdefined.com.au/Video/). We discuss the complicated emotional spectrum of death with real people with real experiences. Hosted by funeral director Matt Kwoka, we delve into the complicated emotions, processes, and taboos surrounding one of the experiences that unites all humanity.