Finding ways to talk to your children about death can be a struggle. Losing a loved one is a devastating event for anyone, but children are particularly vulnerable during times of loss, as they have not yet developed the coping skills for unpleasant and sorrowful events.
To provide them with better understanding, use everyday concepts and examples to describe death to a child, such as when a flower withers and dies, when leaves die and fall off the trees, or when a pet fish dies. Speak to your children in words they comprehend, and find age-appropriate resources that can help your child understand death more clearly.
Many children’s books with familiar characters have gently touched on the subject of loss, such as Sesame Street, Dr. Seuss, and Winnie the Pooh. We also recommend Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing After Loss, by Pat Schwiebert, and I Miss You: A First Look at Death, by Pat Thomas, as these are excellent resources for helping children understand death and grieving.
Talking About Death by Dr. Earl Grollman is a compassionate guide for adults and children to read together, and answers many questions they may have. Often parents want to know at what age they should tell them. Dr. Grollman eloquently explains, “It depends on the child and the circumstances.” Even if they are quite young, if their parents or grandparents die, you have to tell them something.
The most essential rule when helping a child cope with death is to be honest. Kids need to know their guardians are trustworthy. Children relate to the world through their senses and you can leverage this to help them understand what is happening by pointing out simple things like, “You can see Grandpa is weak and moves slower now,” or “Do you hear Grandma’s voice is different—breathy or sometimes shaky?” They are observing these things even when we don’t think they are, so it’s better to call attention to them and to use them as teaching tools.
Children are curious, so there will be many conversations over the years about death. Let them know no question is off limits and that you’ll guide them every step of the way. It is normal for children to be sad when they lose a loved one. Grief shows their ability to form bonds and loving relationships. Let them feel sad and assure them that they have people who can help them cope with their grief.