How to talk to your children about the death of a loved one.
When a loved one passes away parents are confronted with the difficult task of having to talk about death with their children. It is not an easy conversation to have, so here are a few pointers on how to have this discussion with your children.
1. Have an open and honest conversation
This holds true for just about any topic parents have to discuss with children. Even very young children sense that there is something wrong and that mom and dad aren’t their usual self when someone in their surroundings has died. They might start to feel affraid because they dont know what is going on, or they might feel they are the ones who are causing the parent’s distress. If they know that someone passed away but no one is talking with them about it, they might develop other fears related to death or may experience problems processing their own emotions.
Start by telling them that grand-pa (or other loved one) passed away and share your feelings with the child. You may want to give them some information about the cause of death, but depending on the child’s age you’ll need to adjust the content of the conversation. Then you can tell them that you are feeling really sad about this, that you loved grand-pa very much, and that you miss him so much. This will serve as modelling for your child to discuss his or her own emotions.
2. Invite your child to share his feelings
Ask the child how he feels, and let him know that in these tough times different people show their emotions in many different ways. Sometimes people cry, sometimes people are angry and sometimes people dont know what they feel, but that all these reactions are ok and normal.
3. Have the conversation more than once.
It takes time to process feelings related to beravement, so open up the conversation more than once. For example, you might mention that you miss grand-pa and ask them if they feel the same way. Dont be affraid to mention the deceased weeks or months after his death, making the subject an open topic of conversation is less traumatic than making it taboo.
4. Use your religious or spiritual beliefs
It may be very useful and beneficial to use your religious, cultural, spiritual or personal beliefs to talk to children about death.
And a child’s world is naturally composed of fantasies, fairy-tales, and supernatural beings (Santa Clause, the Tooth fairy etc.). So even if you dont have a particular faith, it would be useful to provide an explanation to your child of what happens after death. For example, you may want to tell him that grand-pa is in a beautiful place in the sky, or that he is still with us but we cant see him, that we can still talk to him and ask him for his help. I’m sure you can find a way to discuss what happens after life without contractiding your personal values.
5. Reassure your child
Younger children don’t understand fully the concept of death. Around the ages of 9 or 10 children start to develop abstract thinking and understand that death is irreversible (the person will not come back, he is not just sleeping) and universal (it happens to everyone, not only to bad people). But children of every ages may have many fears related to death. They might fear loosing their parents or might fear their own death. Tell them that they dont have to worry about that, because mom and dad will live a very very long time. Having a rational discussion with your child about how we can never predict when we are going to die will only increase his fears. Fear of separation from parents is quite common in younger children. Some children may fear for their own death. Again, if a child brings this up tell them they dont need to worry about that, and tell them that mom and dad are there to protect them and keep them safe.
6. Find a ritual
Religious rituals are an important part of saying goodbye to a loved one, but you may want to create your own personal and intimate ritual with your children to allow them to express their feelings and say goodbye in a personal way. Planting a tree, setting up a small shrine with flowers and candles, writting a goodbye letter, writting a song, looking at family pictures and recalling good memories of the deceased are all ideas of things you can do with your children.