Intersection of Life and Faith

Talking with a child about death

  • 2000 8 Mar
Talking with a child about death
The most important thing you can do for grieving children is to talk to them - and listen to their observations. Children have many questions they often can't articulate, but a concerned adult can help sort through conflicting emotions.

  • Tell the truth right away. The truth gives explanation for your tears, the endless phone calls, and sad-faced visitors. It also confirms that they are part of everything that touches the family.

  • Be truthful. Many times a parent, thinking death is too stark for the child, gives an unhealthy explanation, such as Grandma's gone on a long trip. That's not only a lie, but it postpones having to tell the truth. Meanwhile, the child may feel resentful because Grandma didn't say goodbye.

  • Use the words dead and died. We don't much like those words, and prefer fade away, lost, or expired. Sadly, people die.

  • Let them see your hurt. Children may translate your stoicism as not caring.

  • Let them see the truth about your comfort. Show the child the verses of Scripture that encourage you. Even preschoolers will benefit from hearing that God loves us so much that He gave us verses to help us through life's tough times. Nothing - not even death - can separate us from His love (Rom. 8:35-39).

  • Tell only what the child can handle. Spare children the details of the death. Later, if they ask, you can share more facts.

  • Encourage children to express feelings. Children who are allowed to express their grief not only fare better at the time but will develop stronger coping mechanisms to deal with later stress. A child may express a range of emotions: anger, guilt, or relief.

  • Allow children to attend the funeral. Not only do they need to feel part of the family unit, but they also have their questions about funerals answered. They need breaks from the intensity of the funeral home: go out for supper or play in the park.

  • Take the child to the cemetery. Most of us need an object toward which we can direct our grief. Many questions will be answered and the child gets a sense of the universality of sorrow by seeing the rows of tombstones - each representing heartaches.

  • Let the child talk. This helps deal with the reality of the death. How many times have you approached the adult at the funeral home and ignored the children standing nearby? It's important that they, too, be allowed to talk - to explain how their grandpa died or to share a special memory.

  • Encourage communication. Lack of verbalization doesn't mean lack of questions, so encourage the child to talk. Some children decide not to think about the death so they don't have to deal with the hurt or reality of losing someone special. They also might worry that they somehow caused the death or had unresolved issues with the deceased.

From Will I Ever Be Whole Again? by Sandra P. Aldrich, copyright (c) 1999. Used by permission of Howard Publishing Co., Inc., West Monroe, La., 1-800-858-4109.

Sandra Aldrich is a popular guest on Heart to Heart of The 700 Club, Prime Time America, Mid-day Connection, and Focus on the Family broadcasts. After her husband died of brain cancer in 1982, she was left to raise two young children. She holds a master's degree from Eastern Michigan University and has been a schoolteacher for 15 years.