How do you talk to children about death?

How do you talk to children about death?
3 Responses
  • Anonymous User
    July 12th, 2020

    Katie was 8 months old when Paul died, so she won't remember him. And on the book tour, so many people came up to me and said, "I am that kid; one of my parents died when I was a baby". It's been super helpful for me to ask them what they needed. The only advice that's been consistent, that every single person says, is just DO talk about it. There's been a huge difference between people's experiences when adults were willing to talk about and answer questions and when they didn't.

    I've heard a specialist at Stanford say the way to describe it is: his body stopped working. That's kind of scary to me but it doesn't seem to be to my daughter. She found a party favor from our wedding and when I told her what it was, she said, "Oh, was I at that wedding?" I said, "No, you weren't born yet". And she replied, "That's because I was dead then". I was like, wow, that is great. That's her perception of non-existence.

    I also talk to her about the ways in which she and Paul are similar, like a couple of days ago she put on two different shoes and she said, "This is what me and my daddy do". And it's so awesome that she knows that. She knows what he was like, funny things that they both do. I made her a little picture book of Paul, of him growing up and the story of him and him with her.

    Being willing to talk about it and answer questions versus letting our pain have us do things like put all of their stuff and pictures away. You don't have to answer more than they ask and you don't have to have some big philosophical answer. The biggest thing is that they feel comfortable asking you questions and you're willing to always answer them.

  • Anonymous User
    July 15th, 2020

    With great compassion and empathy and to the level of their understanding, to begin with. And that starts with an open-ended question. Like: What do you think dying means? Sometimes they are so articulate on the topic, and in my experience, spiritually open. They are the teachers, not the students. It's us big kids that get closed down. 

    The place where kids grapple is with understanding the permanence of death. How long is forever anyway? We adults need to be aware of the specific language we're using. For instance, saying, "Owen went to sleep," or "passed away," well, when is he waking up or where did he pass away to? That vague language is confusing to children. We can use metaphors in nature, like trees - they begin as a seed, and grow, and die. 

    Winter, spring, summer, fall. The circle of life.

  • Anonymous User
    August 19th, 2020

    There are far too many stories in the west that start with, “My person was there one minute and gone the next and no one explained to me they had died”. I have long been of the opinion that if a child is old enough to notice the presence of a person then they are also old enough to notice their absence. It is mindfully and with intention that we need to talk to our children about death and in doing so we need to look for the moments that arise which can give opportunity to our children to practice their own grief and death experiences. It could be when they lose something they have treasured – leave a toy at the local park or a ball in a river. It could be the death of a pet or a school mate or relative.

    As children age, there are opportunities that exist in schools when children find death in science or literature. Conversations about death can come from learning to garden.

    All of these things and many more are ways we can talk to children about mortality, about dying and death and they can provide opportunities for grieving and learning about bereavement and mourning.

    In all cases, no matter what the ‘in’ is to the conversation, those conversations, while age appropriate, should always be honest and transparent. They should use direct and accurate language and not couch the reality. The use of euphemisms, particularly with children, can be confusing (i.e.) and send entirely the wrong message. For example, the child can spend years looking for their parent who has ‘gone away’and they can arrive at the conclusion because of this that death should be hidden and that people don’t have the capacity to deal with the reality of it. This is the wrong lesson to be presenting to children as it stays with them for life and as they grow to adulthood that kind of thinking becomes a point of unconscious disempowerment for them and also a stumbling block to the development of that person’s own level of death literacy.