Over the past year, I've had many conversations with children about death, both my own kids and ones I've taught.
As much as we wish it wouldn't touch our young children's lives or our lives for that matter, it will. I'm sharing with you what I have learned to help you navigate talking with children about death for when it does.
8 Tips For Talking With Children About Death
1. Use real language to talk about death. Rather than phrases like “passed on”, or “no longer with us”, use definite words like death or dead. A child needs to understand that the person is gone permanently and will not be coming back. The other phrases may be misinterpreted and a child may think the person has left but could be returning.
2. Answer questions honestly but provide as little information as you need to. Be guided by their questions. Kids will ask some very direct ones. Some of the questions I have been asked include: Why are people buried in the ground? Will Nana be a zombie now?(!!) Where is Nana's head (when visiting the cemetery) and whether I will die like Nana? As questions come up, they are answered directly without elaborating, except perhaps on the zombie question where we had a later discussion about make-believe.
They may also express many fears which can be answered as simply as possible. My boys have asked why the doctors couldn't fix Nana or if she got cancer because she didn't eat enough vegetables.
4. If you don't know the answer, it's okay to admit it. Children may ask if the person was scared before they died, especially if the death was unexpected. This is a tough question to field. My personal response was to keep my answer simple (see above) and say that I didn't think so because the death happened quickly.
5. Know you'll get asked some tough questions. My mom died on my son's 6th birthday. It was terrible. My son has regularly asked why Nana, who was his best friend, would die on his birthday. In the days before her death, my mom and I actually talked about this. She was very scared she wouldn't make it to his birthday and even more worried she would die on his day. I've told him that I know she would be very sad to have missed his celebration and that I know she wanted to be alive for his day but was too sick and yes, it is very sad.
6. Share memories with them. On my son's birthday, I shared a picture of my mom and him on the day he was born. She was at his birth and was holding him fresh from me, wrapped in a blanket. Little moments appear all the time which invite the sharing of a memory and we grasp them. Sometimes we cry, sometimes we laugh or smile but it feels good to pause in these moments and remember.
7. Follow their lead. When a young teacher at my school died, the students wanted to make him cards and pictures. Our staff created a wall where the children could post them. Sometimes my children ask if we can go visit Nana at the cemetery, so we do.
And finally, don't forget that you can share your feelings too. It's important that children understand it is okay to experience sadness and emotions and that it is safe to share these feelings. My youngest has asked me a few times if I am sad I have no mom or whether I miss her. I tell him I miss her every day and that I will always have a mom even though she has died. I have cried in front of my children and been comforted by them. There is, after all, nothing quite like a snuggle from your child.