Our Advice on Talking to Children About Death
Our caring staff talks to children nearly every day here at Krause Funeral Homes, as families gather for a visitation, funeral, and reception to say goodbye to a special person on their life. Likewise, we also hear from Milwaukee, Brookfield, and New Berlin parents who share sentiments like, “I have no idea what to say to my child about death. I wasn’t even sure if I should bring them to the funeral. Do you have any advice?”
Many of our neighbors reach out to ask us how to handle this complex and emotional topic. Of course, depending on your faith and views of life and death, each family will approach the conversation differently. Here’s our general advice on what to say to children both younger and older after a loved one has died.
Talking to Young Children
First, let us offer a reminder that even when young children realize something sad and difficult is going on, they haven’t developed the coping skills for unpleasant events and may react in physical ways. This might include headaches, upset stomachs, or sleep disruptions. In some cases, children will regress by thumb-sucking, bed-wetting, or having tantrums. They may avoid the issue entirely by pretending the person who died has simply gone shopping or on vacation. All of these behaviors are entirely normal.
When it comes to explaining death, it’s best to do so with short, simple terms. Don’t use euphemisms and clichés to describe the situation. Phrases like “passed away,” “went to sleep,” or “moved on” can be confusing. You may find it helpful to give concrete examples, such as, “When animals die, they don’t run and play anymore. When people die, they won’t breathe or eat or feel anything anymore.” It’s common for younger children to view death as temporary and reversible, like they might see on a cartoon. They also tend to be very literal. Do be honest but keep it simple. For example, “Grandma’s body stopped working.” Remember to remain sensitive and patient as they process the loss.
Many Milwaukeeans ask us whether their child should attend the funeral of a loved one. The bottom line is that each family needs to make that decision based on their child and surrounding circumstances. Gathering with loved ones may help a child accept and understand the death better. Be sure to explain what will happen at the funeral – what children can expect to see and hear. Will there be an open casket? Will information about the person’s life or death be shared that your child might have a hard time hearing? You could also give the child the option of going and let them weigh in with their opinion.
At Krause, we are pleased to offer the services of our beloved grief therapy dog, Bennie. We see how children enjoy Bennie’s company before, during, and after the funeral. He serves as a welcome distraction and it’s evident that those around him are visibly less stressed. If you would like to learn more about Bennie and the role he can play during end-of-life arrangements, please contact us.
Here are other pieces of advice we often share when it comes to talking to children about death:
- Kids process death little by little, so refrain from overwhelming them with information.
- Fill them if the loss will impact their day-to-day life, such as who transports them to and from school or if you need to leave town for any reason.
- Assure your child that he or she is in no way responsible for the death (you might be surprised how often children blame themselves for certain situations).
- Help your child find ways to express their grief, such as drawing, music, exercise, or other forms of play.
- After talking and listening, even if you don’t feel up to it, make time for fun activities like cooking together, arts and crafts, or playtime in the park.
Talking to Older Children
Older children will more fully understand the reality of death as permanent, irreversible, and inevitable – even for them. You can get into more in-depth discussions. Some questions may be difficult to answer, and it’s OK if you don’t know how to respond.
Consider these other helpful tips:
- Talk about common funeral etiquette so your child has an idea of what to expect. If we can help with this at all, we hope you will let us know.
- Don’t be afraid or nervous to talk about your loved one. Research shows that sharing stories and memories helps with healing and closure.
- If you’re concerned about letting your child see you upset or crying, remember that sharing your feelings demonstrates that it’s OK to feel pain and grief after losing a loved one. Learning to express grief and not keep it bottled inside is a lesson that can have a lifelong benefit.
- Take your cues from their behaviors and let your child’s needs be your guide to responding. Answer their questions openly and honestly and continue to be available and supportive.
- Kids need to express themselves to someone they trust, and it’s important to be there for them. Keep in mind that there is no timeline for grief. They will need your ongoing support – not just in the weeks and months following a death – but also in the long term.
Grief is a difficult journey, but together, we can walk alongside each other to work through the emotions in a healthy and productive way. At Krause Funeral Homes, we see it as part of our mission to help the grieving move toward healing. It doesn’t matter what time of day, or what day of the week you need support, we’re here for you around the clock. Don’t hesitate to contact us anytime.