How to Talk to Your Kids about Death
- Lori Wildenberg Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2017 17 Mar
Death is a certainty. It is normal, natural, and inevitable. It has no boundaries and lays claim to all living creatures. Our kids, ready or not, will be affected by it.
Learning how to deal with death is a critical component of our children’s emotional development. Childhood is the time to equip them with the tools needed to deal with loss.
In our 21st century western culture, death is more removed, more hidden, more isolated. It most often occurs in hospitals and nursing homes. Long ago people died at home surrounded by loved ones.
Today death is more mysterious and kids are curious. Death doesn’t move and feels cold. At my grandmother’s funeral, my younger cousin declared, “She blinked!” when peering into the open casket. It takes time for children to grasp the idea that physical death is a permanent state of being.
When you talk with your kids about death, make sure to be:
SEE ALSO: How to Help Kids Deal with Death
Use the "D" words. Death, Died, Dying, Dead. If the child is attending a funeral service or a wake, tell him how the event will unfold. Describe what he will see and hear using a timeline as your guide. “When we get to the funeral home you could hear some people crying. They are sad. You will see____ in a coffin. Then we will listen to the pastor and sing some songs. After that…”
Avoid the use of euphemisms like passed on, lost, transitioned, gone home, and eternal slumber. State it simply, "She died."
Don't say she died because she was sick. If the person was sick say, "She was really BIG sick. Not regular sick (sore throat, flu, cold).” If the death was due to a disease, name it. "She had a disease called cancer. The cancer made her body BIG sick, not regular sick."
Do say, “I feel sad. I will miss Grandpa.” This gives your child permission to feel sad and grieve. Bring Jesus into the conversation. Discuss how he felt sad when his friend Lazarus died. (“Jesus wept” John 11:1-37.)
Normalize your child’s feelings by sharing memories of your feelings when you were your child’s age and you experienced a loss. “I remember when I was 7 years old and my dog died. I was so sad. Sad, just like you are sad about Clifford.” Let the child know it is okay to have happy moments during sad times. Laughter and fun are not a betrayal. In fact, having joyful times reminiscing is one way to honor the deceased.
Children need to feel secure, comforted, and reassured. It is critical for kids know their parents love them, are there for them, and are willing to help them get through the hard time. “We can help each other and things will get better.”
The topic of death is almost taboo. But our child needs to know it is good to talk about and to ask questions about death. Answer with honesty and simplicity. “How will grandpa eat (go to the bathroom, wake up, move, breathe, talk, feel) when he’s dead?” “He won’t eat (go to the bathroom, wake up, move, breathe, talk, feel) when he’s dead because his body doesn’t work anymore.” If a child asks a question a parent doesn’t have the answer to, admit it. “I don’t know the answer to your question. I have wondered the same thing.”
Maintain your routine as much as possible while being sensitive to your child’s needs. You may need to make some temporary adjustments to your child’s schedule. Extra down time, snuggle time, or quality time with mom or dad may be necessary.
Understand your child’s developmental stage. Preschoolers are in the magical thinking stage. They believe wishes make things happen. Kids at this age may be especially fearful. Death is viewed as reversible and temporary. Children ages 5-9 realize death is final but don’t see death as personal. They are beginning to think conceptually and recognize others’ emotions. To comprehend hard information, kids at this age need it repeated multiple times. In the tween and teen years, kids fully understand death is irreversible and know they will die someday.
Kids react differently and find comfort in different things. Some cry, others become angry, some clingy, others whiny. Some may act as if nothing has happened, while others find solace in reading, drawing, writing, listening to music, or playing. No matter how your child copes with death or expresses his feelings, he needs sympathetic and nonjudgmental responses from his parents. Study your child. Listen and watch so you are able to respond to your child’s needs accordingly. If you see signs of intense fear or the inability to sleep or eat, you may want to seek professional help.
Possible Actions to Take:
Create a book of memories to help keep the deceased person or pet alive in your kid’s mind. The goal is not to forget, but to accept the death bit by bit and recall the importance of the relationship and person (or animal).
Light a candle in memory of your loved one and to remember Jesus lights the way for us.
Attend the funeral —if you feel your child is ready and he wants to attend.
Hold a funeral. If a pet has died, have a family memorial service.
- Help or serve others. Give your child a job so he can see what comforting another person looks like.
Here are some verses to study and discuss with your older children. Emphasize those who know Christ will be with him rather than those who don’t know Christ will perish.
Psalm 23:2, 46:1; 56:3; 73:23; 139; Proverbs 25:21-22; John 11:25-26, 14:1-3, 14:27; Romans 8:38; 12:21; 1 Corinthians 15; 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, 5:1-20; Philippians 1:21, 4:6,7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Colossians 3:1-4; Hebrews 13:6; 1 Peter 5:7; Revelation 21:4.
No matter the child’s age, he needs to be reassured he is safe, loved, and is free to ask questions and discuss feelings about death. Be clear and concise when talking about death. Model how to put emotions into words. Describe what to expect. Respond to your child’s emotions; comfort him yet don’t stay stuck on the sad feelings. A change of venue may be called for. The grieving process is a little different for everyone. Grieving takes time.
Death can be the open door to a faith-based conversation. Pray for God's words and wisdom before approaching your child. Ask God if this is the time to retell the Easter story. Death is not the end but a new beginning (2 Corinthians 5:8).
Pray with me:
Father, Grant me wisdom. Cover my child with your peace and presence. You are the resurrection and the life. Plant this truth in my child’s heart, mind, and soul. Amen.
“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13)
Lori Wildenberg, licensed parent and family educator, co-founder of 1st Corinthians 13 Parenting, and a national speaker. Her 4th book, Messy Journey: How Grace and Truth Offer the Prodigal a Way Home will be published May 2017. Contact Lori to schedule her for a seminar, retreat, or speaking event. Go to www.loriwildenberg.blogspot.com to subscribe to her Eternal Moments blog.
Photo courtesy: Thinkstockphotos.com
Publication date: March 17, 2017