6 Important Tips for Talking to Kids About Death and Loss

6 Important Tips for Talking to Kids About Death and Loss

Talking to kids about loss is tough, but they can handle and process more than we realize.

By: Laurie Sue Brockway

Trying to get your child through the experience of death or loss may seem overwhelming, yet kids are far more resilient than we may realize. Whether it is a beloved human or an adored pet, experts we interviewed agree that kids need honesty and a chance to grieve.

A lot of parents feel that they need to protect their children from death -- this isn't true,” says Christina Steinorth-Powell, MA, MFT, author of Cue Cards for Life.

But we do have to listen and get a sense of their understanding so we can tailor the approach to their needs. “Every child is uniquely different and every situation about death is unique,” says psychologist Daria M. Brezinski, who has helped clients through death and loss for 35 years. “The only reliable method of assisting children is to listen to how much interest they have, how much knowledge, and how much they really want to know -- instead of imposing our adult attitudes, beliefs, and justifications onto them.”

Here are some expert tips to help you talk with your children about death and loss:

1. Find out what they know. “First ask the child what he or she thinks about death, and what happens after death, if anything,” says Kristine A. Kevorkian, PhD, MSW, an expert in grief, death, and dying (not related to Dr. Jack Kevorkian). Depending on the maturity of the child, he or she may not want or need a big explanation. The child may prefer you to gloss over things, she says.

2. Honor reactions and questions. A young child may become visibly upset or may just want to go and play after hearing news of a death -- and that’s OK. “Parents and adults must also be aware that children may have no reaction that is visible,” says Stacy Haynes, EdD, LPC, ACS. “And [they] may need to ask questions to help their child process death and dying. Be open and allow children to ask questions about what is taking place.” Younger children, especially, may have many practical questions, and questions could come up for months following a loss.

3. Don't try to delay or prevent a child’s grief. Allow their real emotions to surface. “It is incredibly hard to watch your child grieve, but they need to learn how to do it,” says Jen Hancock, author of The Humanist Approach to Grief and Grieving. “If you cheat them out of the experience of grief by diverting grief, or replacing grief with another emotion, you don't help them learn how to deal with it at all. They can handle grief if you allow them to.”


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4. It’s OK if mom cries. Don’t be afraid to show your grief. “When parents try to put on a brave face, it often leads children to feel confused,” says Steinorth-Powell. “Children will feel sad and will probably want to cry and grieve. If you, as a parent, don't role model natural behavior, your children will think it's not OK to grieve.” When mom talks about her own sadness, it shows children they do not have to fear or repress their emotions.

5. Prepare them for the funeral. No child is too young to attend a funeral, as long as they are lovingly guided and prepared for what they will see in the funeral home and the cemetery, says bereavement expert Marty Tousley, CNS-BC, FT, DCC. “Shutting children out makes them feel alone and conveys the idea that death and grief are too horrible to be faced,” she says. However, if a child strongly objects to attending a funeral, do not force it.

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6. When a pet dies. Loss of a beloved pet is like any death in the family. It is healthy to have a pet funeral or memorial because rituals help children to express emotions. Another idea is have them make a collage or box full of things they remember about the pet (or person) they lost. “Interactive projects like these give parents lots of opportunity to sit with their children and let them talk about feelings related to the death of a loved one,” says Steinorth-Powell. “Talking is always helpful in processing emotions.”

For more resources, contact The National Alliance of Grieving Children.

Have you had to explain death to your children?

Laurie Sue Brockway is a journalist and author who has written extensively on love, marriage, parenting, well-being, and emotional health. Her work has appeared in hundreds of print and online publications, including Everyday Health and The Huffington Post.

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It can be really hard to tell kids about losing a loved one. Your tips for teaching them are all amazing. Great tip to prepare them for the funeral by telling them what is happening. That way they are not going into it scared. Thanks for the great article. http://www.ridleyfuneralhome.com

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