Talking with Children about Death
Just like adults, children also experience grief when someone dies.
They can also experience a wide range of feelings and reactions such as crying, anxiousness, irritability and anger, as well as unsettled sleep or changed eating patterns. Some behave as if they were much younger by sucking their thumb or becoming clingy.
Experts agree that the best approach is talking to your child as soon as you can to explain what has happened in simple terms. Use direct words such as ‘died’ and ‘dead’. Euphemisms like ‘they’ve gone to sleep’ can cause confusion and anxiety about sleep, for example.
Invite children to ask questions. If you are unsure of the answer, it’s ok to say so. Let them know you’ll ask for help and get back to them.
You can prompt discussion with questions too, like:
- What are you feeling?
- What do you think happened to grandpa?
- Have you heard anything from other people?
Encourage conversation about the person who has died so children have a chance to share their thoughts, feelings and even their favourite memories. It can mean a lot to a child if their thoughts are included in the eulogy, and it reinforces their important place in their family.
Children are often curious about ‘what happens’ when someone has died.
- Explain that the person is usually cared for by the funeral director until the day of the funeral
- Explain what a funeral is and why it is important to share memories, honour life, say goodbye and support each other
- Talk about what usually happens at a funeral
- Take the child to the venue before the funeral to create familiarity.
Sometimes these conversations will prompt children to ask if they can or have to go to the funeral. If you feel you child cannot attend the funeral there are other ways for children to say goodbye. A little ceremony at home with a photo and a candle, planting a memory tree or drawing pictures are just some ideas.
Keep an eye on your children’s reactions and behaviours. Don’t be reluctant to talk about things with them.
Sometimes the distress comes from watching the grown-ups in situations that aren’t explained to them, when children can’t work out what’s going on.
It’s helpful to talk to children about what you are feeling too so they know that it’s ok to feel this way. Let them know that everyone feels and reacts differently – not everyone cries but that doesn’t mean they aren’t feeling it too.