How to talk to your children about the death of a loved one
Helping your children cope with loss, grief and painful feelings
The death of a loved one is painful and complicated for adults, but for children facing a loss for the first time it can be as confusing as it is upsetting. Here are some ways you can support them and things you can expect as they grieve.
What are loss and grief?
Loss and grief can both have a significant effect on people psychologically. Loss is usually associated with something that could come back while grief can be something more permanent, like divorce or the death of a friend or family member. What makes working through grief following a death so difficult is the process of realization and acceptance that this person is not going to come back.
How do children grieve?
A child’s reaction to the death of a loved one will vary depending on their age and previous life experiences. All children are different, and the below examples of age-related responses can be applied to children of different ages and intellectual ability.
Small children under the age of 5 years often do not understand that death is permanent and may ask if the person who has died is coming back. They may exhibit other behaviours such as clinging to their caregiver or show some regressive behaviours like wetting the bed. These behaviours are very common and will usually stop after a certain amount of time has passed.
Older children between the ages of 6 and 11 years start to understand that death is forever (though some 6-year-olds will still struggle with this concept) and may worry that other loved family members and friends will die. They may start to ask more questions and want to understand what happened. They may show their grief through anger and experience physical aches or pains.
Adolescents and young teenagers from around the age of 12 years understand that death is irreversible and happens to everyone, including themselves. They are often interested in understanding why things happen. Their reactions will vary and can include apathy, anger, extreme sadness and poor concentration.
Remember, there is no “correct” way to grieve, and no specific stages in which different emotions or behaviours should appear. Children’s reactions will vary enormously depending on their age, their intellectual ability, their relationship with the person who died, how other family members are responding and the culture and society in which they live.
How do I tell my child that their loved one has died?
The most important thing is not to hide the truth and not to delay the truth. It is natural to want to protect your child, but it is best to be honest. Telling your child what happened will also increase their trust in you and help them to better cope with the loss of their loved one.
Try to find a safe and quiet place to speak to your children and think through what you are going to say. Ask the children to sit with you. If it is a young child and they have a favourite object, toy or comforter they like to carry, let them have it. Speak slowly and pause often, to give them time to understand, and to give yourself time to manage your own feelings.
Be empathetic and be honest with children of all ages, but make sure to be especially clear with young children and do not include euphemisms. Saying something like “we ‘lost’ someone” will further confuse a young child because they won’t understand what that means. Psychologist Dr. Lisa Damour recommends the following: “It’s more useful for adults to warmly and tenderly say: ‘I have some very sad news to share. Your grandparent has died. That means his body stopped working, and we won’t get to see him again.’ It can be hard for parents to use such direct language, but it’s important to be honest and transparent.”
You will need to give children time to absorb this information. Young children may react by appearing not to listen. Be patient and wait for their attention. Also be prepared for younger children to ask the same questions again and again, both at this moment and over the days and weeks to come.
Check for any “magical” thinking. Some children may worry that they said or did something that caused the death. Children of all ages may feel guilty, so check to see if they feel responsible in any way.
You could ask: “Are you worried that Daddy has died because of anything you said or did?” Explain in simple terms what happened and reassure them that they are not to blame. For example: “You did nothing wrong. It was a germ that made Daddy sick and stopped him breathing. He could have caught it anywhere. There was nothing anyone could do, and nobody was to blame.”
Is it okay for me to grieve in front of my child?
It’s completely fine – and natural – for you to show you are sad in front of your child. Try to prepare yourself so that you don’t alarm your child with your reaction, but do be honest. If you are sad and crying, tell them how you are feeling and reassure them that there is nothing wrong with showing your feelings and expressing those feelings to others. This will help children to better name, experience, and show their own feelings.
How can I help my child cope with their grief?
Mourning is an important way for children and adults to come to terms with losing a loved one. It is important for children to be involved in any way that you find appropriate and with which they feel comfortable. Mourning enables your child to accept the death of their loved one, celebrate their life and to say goodbye.
Find a way to hold a commemoration to celebrate and show how significant that person was for all of you. Find ways for your child to connect to the dead person, show their love and show the importance of that person in their life. Children may like to paint a picture, read a poem, or something they have written about that person or sing a song.
All families will have different spiritual beliefs or cultural practices. If your family is a member of a particular faith, it can be helpful to contact your spiritual leader who may support you in explaining the death, and provide comfort to both you and your children.
How can I protect my child’s mental health following the death of a loved one?
Here are some important ways you can help your child feel better and protect their mental health:
- Continue to provide the child with loving and consistent care from you, a parent, relative or carer, whom they trust and know well.
- Infants and young children continue to feel secure and loved through loving physical contact, singing, cuddling and rocking.
- Normal life routines and structure are maintained as much as is possible. Try to keep a regular pattern to the day with time for activities, such as cleaning, schoolwork, exercise and play.
- If children display challenging and/or regressive behavior, try to understand it is their way of showing what they cannot verbalize, and do not punish them.
- Ensure that other children in the child’s life are informed through their teachers or parents about what happened, so that they can support the child on their return to school.
Remember to also take care of your own physical and mental wellbeing. You are grieving as well. It can be hard to support your children while dealing with your own feelings, which is why it is very important that you take time for yourself and take care of yourself. You cannot help your children if you are unwell. Get sufficient sleep, eat properly, exercise, take time to relax (for example through listening to music) and also have someone to whom you can turn to for emotional support. Try to avoid any harmful practices such as increased alcohol consumption.
This article draws from “Communicating with children about death, and helping children cope with grief” by the Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) Collaborative. To learn more please visit the MHPSS Collaborative website.