Talking to Kids about Death and Grief

In my last post, I focused on Grief 101 and the basics of grief and loss. Today I’m going to continue this topic and share some information and tips on the difficult task of talking to kids about death and grief. Once again, I want to reiterate that although I’ll be focusing on grief as it relates to the death of a loved one, it’s important to note that this information may also apply to children who experience other kinds of difficult loss such as divorce or the loss of their health.  

  1. A child’s understanding of death develops over time at different stages of life. New developments and understandings about death occur between 0-3 years of age, 3-5 years, 6-8 years, 9-12 years, and 13-17 years of age. So, if a child experienced a meaningful loss early in their lives, be ready to talk with them about the loss and what it means to them now at each new developmental stage.
  2. Reiterate the importance of open communication and assure the child that they are welcome to ask you questions about the loss or about death anytime. Let them know that if you don’t know the answer, you’ll do what you need to do to help them find the answer.
  3. Be as honest as you can about what happened to the child’s loved one at an age appropriate level. Lying to a child can create resentment and anxiety later in life when the child finds out the details of their loved ones death. I’m certainly not suggesting you tell the child every detail about the loss, (we’ll get to this in a minute) but rather, there is a way to explain death due to accident, illness, suicide, or murder at an age appropriate level. If you’re not sure what that explanation sounds like, please feel free to give me a call and I’d be happy to talk you through this very difficult task. And of course, use your judgement. You know your child best. If there’s something about the loss that is inappropriate to share with them – for example that their uncle died by suicide – then I’d encourage you say something along the lines of “There are some things about Uncle Joe’s death that we will talk more about when you are older because they’re not appropriate right now and will be best talked about later”.

And since I brought up the topic of suicide, here is a little PSA: please refrain from saying someone “committed suicide”. The word “committed” has a negative connotation, like when we say someone committed a crime. Instead, say the person “died by suicide” or that they “took their own life.” 

  1. Keep in mind that kids are different from adults in the way that they grieve. We adults often think of our loss most hours of the day whereas kids can flow in and out of grief quickly. This is why a child may ask very deep, thoughtful questions about death and then after you answer their question, quickly run off and start playing with their friends like nothing happened. Again, keep the lines of communication open at all times.  
  2. If you have young children, do not say their loved one is “sleeping”. Because children under 10 are concrete thinkers, this could create fear and worry about dying if they go to sleep. 
  3. Plan a memorialization activity. It’s important for kids (and adults) to commemorate the life that was lived. Doing a memorialization craft or activity is a meaningful way to help kids process and remember their loved one. You can find a ton of memorialization ideas on Pinterest or by searching google, but here are a few ideas: create a memory box, plant a tree, create a garden stepping stone, painting or creating meaningful pottery. Check out my blog post “Surviving Grief During the Holidays” from November, 2018 for some specific holiday ideas as well. 
  4. Lastly, have compassion for yourself. If you are helping a child through grief then chances are you are also grieving. This can complicate your grief in two ways: 1. Your grief can be easily triggered by the ebb and flow of your child’s questions about death and grief. 2. If the child you are helping happens to be your own child, then you are probably experiencing double the grief – we as parents grieve for our children’s loss on top of grieving our own loss. Be kind to yourself, patient with the child, and ask a partner or support person to “tap in” to answer the child’s question if need be so that you can “tap out” if you need a moment to yourself to manage your own grief.