Grief and Children: How to Explain Death

“Patience on a Monument Smiling at Grief” John Roddam Spencer Stanhope

After the terrible blow that was 2014, the way we grieve and talk about death have really been on my radar, especially when it comes to our daughter.  When she was brand-new I had a conversation with my father-in-law about Harry Potter.  He and his wife were watching one of the movies, and I had commented that I hadn’t read the books or seen the films, but that I would wait until my kids were a bit older and we could read and watch them together.  He was concerned about exposing children to the sadness of death, but I argued that it was a natural part of life and that they needed to know.  Unfortunately, he was one of the people we lost last year; my daughter’s first brush with bereavement.  When he was ailing, I spent a lot of time researching how to explain death to a child.  I spoke to our pediatrician, read articles, and did some soul searching.  Everything I came across gave largely the same advice.  I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, but I listened to this episode of This American Life the other day, and it felt too important not to share.  So here is what I learned:

The most significant thing you can do when a loved one dies is to be direct and factual with your children.  It is so tempting to try to protect them, but you can’t really.  They always know, at the very least, that something is terribly wrong, and it’s much scarier to be in the dark than to know even the most upsetting information.  It’s especially important to explain the facts of what happened, along with the reasons it won’t happen to them. If someone died of cancer, tell them the person was sick, but also reassure them that it’s different from when they get sick, and that it’s not contagious.  It can also be helpful to let them know it wasn’t their fault, depending on the situation.

If it was a caregiver who died, children need reassurance that someone will still be there to care for them.  It may seem selfish from an adult’s perspective, but if you were entirely dependent on help, you would worry about your well being if there was no one to care for you as well.  The world is scary when you’re small. Let them know that someone will always be there for them.

If you are religious, it’s still often best to avoid talk of the afterlife, especially with a very young child. It can be confusing to think that the person is still there, but that you can’t see them.  It’s better to explain that the person is gone.  Everything I read said the same thing: simply explain that the person’s body stopped working, and why.  If they already have a strong understanding of Heaven, they might bring it up themselves, in which case you should answer their questions in a way that feels honest and simple to you.  Let them take the lead, and don’t over-explain.

Let your child ask questions, but don’t insist that they talk.  Death is a tricky concept to understand, and questions that seem inappropriate, are just their way of working through the facts.  They need space to think, so don’t press them for questions.  Just be available to answer them as they come up.  Also, let them use play to work through their issues. Play is how children make sense of the world, and is interestingly less about escape than confronting their problems straight on.

Something I found interesting in the This American Life story was the mention that children re-grieve as they grow.  Each new milestone brings on new grief.  We tend to think of grieving as something that is very intense in the beginning, but lessens with time. Children don’t necessarily follow the seven stages of grief, but grieve in waves instead.  I found this really interesting because my daughter seemed to go through a cognitive leap recently, and with it came many more questions about Pop Pop.

And to circle back to the first point, always tell the truth.  This has been the biggest theme in everything that I have read or listened to, so it seems worth repeating.  When my grandmother’s mother died when she was six, she was told her that her mom went away on a train.  She lived to the age of ninety and never forgot that betrayal.  She had to grieve twice…once for the abandonment of her mother, and again for her death.  It’s so important to really let kids know what happened so they can grieve appropriately, and hopefully only need to process one loss.

Here are the links I found most helpful when I was doing my research, along with some posts that have come up since:

This BabyCenter article on explaining death to a preschooler was my favorite.

A Cup of Jo also tackled the issue recently.

The aforementioned “This American Life” episode is great all around, but the third act is about death, and is really moving and interesting.  I definitely recommend it to all parents, not just those dealing with loss.

I haven’t read this book, but I stumbled across this post this morning, and had to stop back by the blog to add this recommendation for Duck, Death, and the Tulip.  Like I said, I don’t know much about it, but it looks interesting.

If you live in Houston, Bo’s Place was recommended by our pediatrician, but if not there are similar grief counseling organizations throughout the country.

Hopefully you won’t need this information, but if you do, I hope you find this post helpful.

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2 thoughts on “Grief and Children: How to Explain Death

  1. I caught that same episode of This American Life and thought it was fantastic too. It actually calmed my nerves on the topic quite a bit and took the pressure of having to keep up with a lie about death off. Thanks for posting your other resources! You’re doing a great job!

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