Saying the D-word: Tips for explaining death to your child

Saying the D-word: Tips for explaining death to your child

Talking about death with a child is never easy, and many times, we might want to avoid it. However, death is inevitable, and it is our responsibility as parents to ensure that our kids understand it, and that they feel like it’s ok to discuss it.

We spoke with Le Bonheur’s Palliative Care Coordinator Joanna A. Lyman, MA, CCLS, CPMT. She provided some tips on how you can begin the conversation about death with your children.

Don’t use euphemisms

Though it might be difficult, use the words “dead” and “died”. Avoid using phrases such as passed away, lost, crossed over and went to sleep as explanations of death. Phrases intended to “soften” the word may confuse your child and potentially cause additional fears. Be concrete in your explanation of what happened. This will help them process the death easier. For example, “Grandpa died because his heart was sick. It got so sick that it stopped working.”

Give an age appropriate definition of death

Adjust the explanation you offer to the developmental age of your child. In doing so, draw reference to something familiar. For example, when you are alive you can play, run and eat, but when you die you can no longer play, run and eat.

A great book that might be able to help is “When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death” by Laurie Kay and Marc Brown. For kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder try “I Have a Question about Death: A Book for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder or Other Special Needs” by Arlen Grad Gaines and Meredith Englander Polsky.

Elicit thoughts and questions conversationally

Asking a child if they have any questions or concerns about death may put them on the spot. Eliciting questions conversationally could be a more effective way to uncover their worries. For example, you might say, “That was a really tough thing we just told you. What part are you thinking about most?”

Remember, children are great at asking for exactly what they need in the moment. If they ask a question, it’s ok to answer it directly – but avoid over answering. Wait to see if your explanation prompts another question. Your child may have received all that they needed/wanted and may need time to process what they heard. If not, they will continue to ask follow up questions.

If you are a parent of a grieving child, a good book that might be able to help you elicit thoughts, feelings and questions through activities is “Healing a Child’s Grieving Heart: 100 Practical Ideas for Families, Friends, and Care Givers” by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D. Another great book that might be able to ease children’s fears is “The Invisible String” by Patrice Karst.

Adjust your expectations

Every child grieves differently. A child's grief looks different from an adult's. When you share the tough news about the death of a loved one, your child may not have any outward expression of emotion and might want to go play. Play is how kids begin to process what is happening. Children often toggle in and out of sadness and play and sometimes combine them. You may need to address the death of a loved one several times as your child is processing and grieving. Questions about death and dying rarely come at an opportune time, so be flexible.

Address common fears about death

When speaking about a death to a child, they will have fears about their own mortality or the mortality of a caregiver. A common question is, “Am I (Are you) going to die too?” Give honest and direct answers. “Yes, all living things eventually die, but you are a healthy and strong child so there is no reason to worry.” Always reassure them that they are safe.

Utilize natural opportunities to talk about death

Take advantage of natural opportunities to talk about death. For example, if your child finds a dead bug or dead bird, use these instances to help normalize death. This moment may also create a good opportunity to share beliefs/stories about your family’s faith tradition, whatever that might be.

It is also important to be mindful of how much your child is exposed to in the news, social media, video games and other forms of media. Though it might seem harmless to you, children may be frightened by the things they see and hear. Talk about these things in a similar manner. Address their questions, and reassure them they are safe.

There are some good books you might want to consider that could help you take advantage of these moments. These are “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages” by Leo Buscaglia, Ph.D., “The Next Place” by Warren Hanson and “Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children” by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen.

Give your child a feelings vocabulary

Children may not have the vocabulary to verbally express what they are feeling. Kids need words to describe their emotions. Begin to give them the necessary vocabulary to do so as early as possible. Label your emotions and those of your child whenever possible. For example, “I am feeling sad today,” or “Gosh, you seem really frustrated!” You might also try introducing storybooks that identify emotions for your child so they can learn the names of their feelings. A great book to consider is “The Way I Feel” by Janan Cain.

It’s ok to cry in front of your child

Expressions of grief are normal. Allowing yourself to experience grief in front of your child helps normalize it for them. Children can learn how to grieve in healthy ways by watching their caregivers. They can also learn unhealthy ways to grieve by watching adults. It’s very important that, even in grief, the grown up remains the child’s caregiver and not the other way around.

Subscribe to the blog so you don’t miss a post.